What will come of the buildings on D.C.’s closed-school list?


Four years ago, Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty announced that they would close up to two dozen schools. The plan was met with opposition by parents, students and community members. Here, parents and students of Stevens Elementary School protest the closings. Michael White, a 5-year-old kindergartner, holds a megaphone. (Gerald Martineau/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It prompted hours of D.C. Council testimony, public shouting matches at neighborhood meetings and street demonstrations where protesters called on the mayor to be jailed.

Then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, closed 23 schools four years ago. Once the schools were closed and the students relocated, the mayor transferred a dozen or more of the buildings to his deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Neil O. Albert, to see what the market value for the properties were.

Fenty was heavily criticized for his efforts to redevelop schools he and Rhee had closed. With Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, proposing to close 20 schools last week, memories of Fenty’s school redevelopment plans have been rekindled even though Henderson has proposed retaining most of the current buildings. What did Fenty achieve for his troubles? What became of those buildings?

Of 11 former school buildings that Fenty offered to the real estate market in December of 2008, none have been fully developed for commercial uses. This is in large part because of the economy; Fenty and Albert issued solicitations for the schools just three months after the collapse of Lehman Bros., when many real estate developers were scrambling for cash and not in a position to take on new projects.

Now, some of them are getting close. In August, three organizations began construction on a project that will turn the former M.M. Washington Career High School, at 27 O St. NW, into 82 subsidized apartments and 15,000 square feet of community space.

Two valuable properties that Fenty made available — the former Hine Jr. High School on Capitol Hill and the former Stevens Elementary School in the West End — are on their way to development as well. Hine is set to become a mixed-use project led by District developers EastBanc and Stanton, while District-based Akridge and Ivymount School plan to turn Stevens into an office building and special education center.

Many remain tied to education

Three of the schools Fenty proposed developing will assume new educational uses. Bertie Backus Middle School, at 5171 S. Dakota Ave. NE, is used by the University of the District of Columbia’s community college. Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School took over the former Slowe Elementary School, while Washington Latin Public Charter School plans to open in the former Randolph School.

Of the remaining five schools Fenty proposed for redevelopment, three remain vacant (Langston, Randall Highlands and Young) according to the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

The former John Fox Slater elementary school has been used for a child care facility while the former Grimke School, on Vermont Avenue Northwest just south of U Street, contains some District and cultural offices currently but is viewed as a future development site.

Two other schools not included in Fenty’s original solicitation, Bruce Monroe on Georgia Avenue and Gage-Eckington in LeDroit Park, were torn down and turned into parks.

Henderson reiterated before the D.C. Council last week that she would like to retain most of the 19 buildings currently occupied by the schools she plans to close, with a final decision on the closures expected in January.

By law, charter schools have the right of first refusal for buildings the city decides that it does not need. But some buildings may be required for swing space as other schools are renovated, while others may be needed as the city grows.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) said with so many apartments being built in her ward, some of the buildings may be needed in the near future. “We want to have schools in the community to accommodate them,” she said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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