By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008
A New York company announced yesterday that it was abandoning plans to build an upscale private boarding school on the former Bethesda estate of National Geographic editor Gilbert Grosvenor, abruptly ending a project that had sparked intense neighborhood resistance.
The firm, Nations Academy, said in a statement that "current real estate market and financial conditions" forced it to cancel its plans for the property, which was to have been the flagship for a string of internationally oriented prep schools in major cities around the world.
"Nations Academy remains committed to opening a school in the greater Washington, D.C., area in the future," spokesman Jeanne Allen Strother said in the statement.
The company, led by education entrepreneur and former Esquire magazine owner Chris Whittle, had an option to buy the historic mansion and the wooded 35-acre parcel near the intersection of the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Rockville Pike. The group was seeking zoning approval to build a 1,600-student school geared toward the children of international businesspeople and diplomats.
The scale of the project drew opposition from neighborhood activists, many of whom are veterans of previous development battles in the densely populated, high-traffic part of Bethesda.
"We were hoping for this," said Cheryl Leahy, president of the Wildwood Manor association, one of the groups leading the effort to stop the school or have it reduced in size. Opponents hired a lawyer, readied traffic impact reports and managed to have the Tudor-style Grosvenor home, which serves as office space for an environmental group, approved for historic designation by the Montgomery County Planning Board. That proposal is before the County Council, and Nations Academy said in June that the historic designation process would delay the project by a year.
But Leahy said she doesn't think any of the opponents' actions were decisive in the project's final collapse.
"It looks like the economy is what ultimately determined it," Leahy said. "It just might not be the best time to build a 1,600-student private school in an area that already has plenty of private schools."
The company also recently dropped plans to build a second Nations Academy campus on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Whittle did not return calls seeking comment.