D.C. Deal Could Get Schools, Libraries
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
The District of Columbia is studded with worn-out municipal buildings, many surrounded by the gleaming office and apartment towers of today's construction boom.
The old schools and libraries need to be replaced. Developers are hungry for space for even more condominiums. So D.C. officials want to make a deal: The developers would build new libraries, schools and maybe even police stations, and get the privilege of putting condominiums or shops on top of or alongside them.
Proponents say developers could pay now for amenities the city wouldn't fund for years, if ever, and developers would get scarce city space for housing -- mostly high-end, but some affordable.
With the costs of fixing schools and libraries estimated at close to $2 billion, said D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, "I don't believe we can tax our way out."
Even as the District and federal governments are considering proposals to increase funding to rebuild libraries and schools, Cropp (D) has introduced a bill to launch private redevelopment of some of those facilities as a way to bring in corporate dollars and move projects more quickly through the pipeline. The approach is being used increasingly to renovate libraries in other cities but remains rare on public school campuses.
Aides to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) say more than a dozen sites are ripe for public-private development and could make way for hundreds of new apartments or offices, along with new facilities, boosting the city's tax base and population. City planners cite such complexes as the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in Adams Morgan -- a four-acre compound smack in the center of one the District's liveliest neighborhoods.
A cement plaza is framed by large, mostly windowless buildings, which house a poorly maintained school, a cramped recreation center and a health clinic whose directors say they desperately need more space. For more than a year, a few community activists have been urging the city to look for developers interested in building housing on part of the site, then putting new public facilities on the rest.
"There's a good dream here, a good concept," said James Coleman, 52, president of the booster group Friends of Marie Reed. "But the [existing] building doesn't serve that dream."
Coleman said developers could be asked to build a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, since low-cost apartments are disappearing rapidly from Adams Morgan. He would expect them to provide a new rec center, with a recording studio for a recently donated electronic keyboard. The clinic would have enough space for its dentists and substance abuse counselors. The school's noisy, open layout would be replaced by traditional classrooms, fully wired for the Internet.
Some of Coleman's neighbors, however, say his approach could turn out to be a nightmare. The skeptics include old-timers who believe public-private development is simply code for gentrification, drawing more rich, white people to what used to be a working-class black and Latino neighborhood. Some cling to the Reed complex -- built in 1977 to replace a crumbling, formerly segregated school -- as an important piece of history. And there are such residents as Simi Batra, newly elected president of the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association, who philosophically oppose giving up part of a public asset to improve the rest.
"You don't sell your public spaces to finance school construction; that's not how it's done," Batra said. "Because what happens the next time a renovation needs to be done? In a hundred years, there will be nothing left to sell."
On Wednesday, the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted 5 to 3 to ask the District to gauge interest in Marie Reed from developers. But the commissioners said their resolution "should in no way be perceived as" a commitment to the public-private arrangement.