The Makings of a Museum
The Federal City Council stepped into the power vacuum to come up with a plan for the site -- the last available land of its size in the core of downtown. Sparks called together interested parties to sort through the possibilities. The 10.5-acre site of the old convention center, which by one estimate is now worth $300 million, is nestled on four downtown blocks bounded by New York Avenue NW, H Street, Ninth Street and 11th Street.
Golden showed up to advocate for underground exhibition space for the new convention center and a new hotel above ground. Representatives of Metro pushed for an underground turnaround station for their trains. Sparks and consultants for the music center advocated their project for the site. Developers like Robert M. Gladstone of Quadrangle Development Corp. and architects from Leo A. Daly Co. helped assess how the pieces could fit together.
Over the course of months, the business group mapped out a broad plan for the site, complete with a central square called Duke Ellington Place. By the time they were done, Williams had been elected mayor. His new key staffers included Deputy Mayor Eric W. Price and Andrew Altman, the District's planning director, who were in charge of the city's economic development effort. Sources close to them say they were taken aback when, shortly after taking office, they learned how far the Federal City Council had proceeded without government input. The sources said that Williams personally gave Altman permission to confront Sparks, despite the group's clout.
One morning in early 2000, Altman sat down with Sparks in the council's 15th Street offices. It was a cordial meeting, attendees said, but Altman delivered an unmistakable message: Slow down. The District owns this land, and the D.C. government will decide what to do with it.
Williams created a task force headed by Charlene Drew Jarvis, then a D.C. Council member, to evaluate uses. It was comprised of developers and community groups, neighborhood activists and Sparks. The task force decided that the highest priority should be given to retail and housing. But it said the music museum was an interesting idea and if a plan could be developed to accommodate all three uses, the District should consider it.
The mayor's office then told the Federal City Council to come up with such a plan. The Federal City Council and its consultants proposed a plan under which the District would pay $30 million to support the music museum. But they were told by D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp (D) and Finance Committee Chairman Evans that would not happen, Evans recalled recently.
The music center board next proposed using $100 million in private donations and $122 million in debt to fund the effort. A few months ago, Sparks and music center consultants thought they were close to reaching an agreement with the D.C. government.
Then in April, architect Theodore F. Mariani presented to D.C. Council members a very different plan for the old convention center site. He proposed using the site to expand the new Washington Convention Center and for a massive new hotel. It wasn't clear whether a music museum could be squished into that site.
Ultimately, if the Federal City Council wants a music museum it may have to look elsewhere, according to a source in the Williams administration.
Back to the Drawing Board
Now the Federal City Council is scrambling to preserve its idea of a music center on the old convention center land. According to the Federal City Council's latest plan, which it is preparing to present to the D.C. Council, the group would put most of the music museum facilities underground. It would raise $50 million from private donations. Another $50 million would come from selling rights for office or hotel towers above the museum. The center would issue about $122 million in debt to be paid with income from renting the performance halls, $12 admission fees to the museum, revenue from the gift shop and an on-site restaurant, and from renting out the museum for private events in the evenings.
Sparks said that the handful of public officials who have seen the revised plan give it positive reviews.
Under the group's projections, the music center would generate $20 million per year more than it needs to support itself, money that would be funneled to other arts groups in Washington. To get to those numbers, the group assumes that the museum would attract almost 1.5 million visitors per year. That would make it twice as popular as the recently completed International Spy Museum, but less popular than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had 2 million visitors in 2002. The Experience Music Project, a similar museum in Seattle, had only 433,000 visitors last year.
Sparks, who was paid more than $252,000 for his efforts in a fiscal year ended in 2002, according to the Federal City Council's tax return, said he does not take the setbacks as a sign that the group is losing its influence. He jokes that every project he has undertaken in his time at the Federal City Council has taken 13 years to complete; the original Washington Convention center, first envisioned in 1970, opened in 1983.
"That's the big advantage of working for the real business elite," he said. "We can take the long view."
Evans said the Federal City Council is facing a different environment, but it is adjusting its operating style accordingly. "Maybe sometimes in the past when they were much more of an all-powerful group, they did what they wanted to do. Now they seem very willing to listen and adopt changes. They're a little more flexible, able to read the political landscape and adjust accordingly, where it seems like 30 years ago they would just do what they wanted to do without talking to anybody," Evans said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Music legend Quincy Jones greets Nancy Sinatra at a November news conference detailing plans for the proposed National Music Center and Museum. Jones and Sinatra are on the museum's governing board.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)
Metro Business: Coverage of Washington area businesses and the local economy.