Corcoran’s conundrum: Great location, tricky redevelopment

Washington’s real estate developers have successfully transformed hospitals and warehouses into high-priced condominiums. They’ve made anonymous office buildings into luxury hotels and, in one case, reconfigured a roller-skating rink as a grocery store.

But they just don’t know what they would do with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Here’s the conundrum: Move the oil paintings, photographs and art students out of the Beaux-Arts building near the Mall, as trustees have proposed, and you’re left with a handsome historic structure that would best be re-purposed as . . . an art museum. Where else, even in Washington’s increasingly sophisticated suburbs, could you find a better — or more symbolically appropriate — showcase for one of the world’s most important private collections of American art?

At first glance, the collection’s location seems enviable. Constructed in 1897, with a wing added 30 years later, the 129,000-square-foot museum is one of the closest buildings to the White House — a setting that should widen the eyes of even the most jaded office builder: Proximity to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. carries not only prestige but also real value.

“From a locational standpoint, it’s clear that it’s as valuable as any site that there is in the city,” said John F. Kevill, a commercial real estate broker for Eastdil Secured. “What’s hard to figure out is what you can reuse the property for that can produce income, given the obvious historic nature of both the inside and the outside of the building.”

Built to house a grand collection of American art, the Corcoran, with its wide hallways and indirect lighting, provides visitors with a serene experience. But spacious walkways and windowless walls don’t lend themselves to reuse as busy offices or hotel suites.

What’s more, the ornate building is designated a National Historic Landmark, governed by strict laws that are likely to prevent major changes, such as adding windows. And because the structure is so close to the White House, redevelopment would fall under scrutiny for security concerns, further lessening the building’s flexibility for other uses.

“They say in real estate, it’s location, location, location,” Kevill said. “But if you can’t take advantage of that location to create income, that creates an issue.”

Oliver Carr III, whose family’s company developed much of downtown, is building a 120,000-square-foot office building next to the museum on land purchased from the Corcoran for $20.5 million. He said the historic property doesn’t immediately lend itself to a use other than a cultural one.

“Our view is that the Corcoran museum will be best suited for another museum or national heritage group to acquire given its proximity to the national mall,” Carr said in an e-mail.

Any buyer would be faced with a hefty renovation bill. When Corcoran’s board of trustees voted unanimously last week to authorize the shopping of the building, they said they had to do so to address its chronic operating losses, including $7.2 million for the fiscal year that ended last June. The nonprofit organization’s management says it would cost an estimated $130 million to restore the building to modern standards — a put-off for prospective buyers — and has spent two years and $600,000 in consulting fees studying its options.

Corcoran spokeswoman Mimi Carter said organization leaders were not prepared to discuss any interest they had received from prospective buyers, how much the gallery might be worth or who was providing the organization with real estate advice.


A map locating the Corcoran Gallery of Art (None)

“Unfortunately, the Washington business community has not supported the Corcoran in any significant way,” said former board chairman John “Til” Hazel, a real estate lawyer and developer.

Hazel said he would prefer to see the museum sell some of its paintings, drawings and photographs than the building — an action that would be highly controversial in the museum world. He said he had not heard from anyone interested in buying the gallery and did not know who was advising the Corcoran on real estate matters.

“I’m very concerned about where the Corcoran is headed,” he said.

‘We’ve got a site for you’

Officials from neighboring jurisdictions have begun setting up meetings with Corcoran management to propose locations they hope could lure the museum — and, importantly, its art school — outside of the District. The reasoning goes that moving away from the Mall and its swath of free art museums, as well finding a place where the Corcoran could expand its revenue-producing school, could help the organization regain its financial footing.

“We have been in communication with them and expect that we will be visiting with them in the short term,” said Steve Silverman, director of economic development for Montgomery County.

Should the Corcoran move to a neighborhood such as Wheaton, Silverman said, it might help kick off a resurgence akin to the one Silver Spring experienced after the American Film Institute reopened there in 2003 after leaving the Kennedy Center.

Arlington officials are also arranging a meeting, said Terry Holzhei­mer, the county’s economic development chief, and might have a head start because Corcoran management considered taking over the space made available when the Newseum relocated to the District from Rosslyn.

Prince George’s County officials are studying museum financing and expect to also make a push for the Corcoran. And there’s always the possibility of finding another location in the city.

Rumors in the art world have the Corcoran committed to moving to the Alexandria waterfront, home to the Torpedo Factory Art Center, which Corcoran Director and President Fred Bollerer has denied. Val P. Hawkins, head of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the real estate industry is waiting for Corcoran leaders to move forward.

“They’ve got to make the decisions. Do they move? Can they move? Is it financially feasible to do so?” Hawkins said. “And then they have to figure out what are the best sites for them. And I am sure there will be developers in D.C. and all around who will say, ‘We’ve got a site for you.’ ”

With the advent of urban neighborhoods in Washington suburbs, a move out of the District might make more sense than in years past. Mixed-use developments in Arlington and Montgomery are providing dense neighborhoods of residents, as well as the restaurants and attractions the Corcoran lacks in its current location.

Richard A. Newman, a partner at law firm Arent Fox who advised the Corcoran for years on its real estate options, said the growing focus on education could make a suburban move more plausible because the organization would rely less on masses of paying visitors.

“If it is really an art school moving, an art school has much less of a dramatic challenge to our sense of how urban planning, urban development and how regional development should work than if it were really a cultural institution,” he said.

What’s it worth?

If management and the board decide a move is best, how much could the Corcoran get for its historic building? Commercial real estate experts suggested it could fetch $40 million to $60 million from a company interested in turning it into a residential or office building.

The price would be much higher, they said, if it were not a National Historic Landmark. “That would make it certainly challenging from a commercial real estate perspective,” said Tom Wilbur of District-based developer Akridge.

But if managers of an embassy, museum or other cultural entity wanted an exclusive site with access to the White House, the Corcoran could land a much higher number, Kevill suggested. In that case, the location could be enough.

“But it might take years to find that right buyer,” he said.

What do you think could be done with the building? A foundation, health club, linchpin of a university’s D.C. program? Or primo lobbyist spot in the shadow of the White House? Let us know in the comments section below.

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