D.C. Solicits Development For 11 Former School Sites

Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration is asking for plans for former schools.
Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration is asking for plans for former schools. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Paul Schwartzman and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said yesterday that it is seeking to redevelop 11 now-shuttered public schools, inviting developers to submit proposals that can include retail space, offices and high-priced and affordable housing.

The schools are located across the city and include Stevens Elementary in Foggy Bottom, opened in 1868 to educate the children of freed slaves; Hine Junior High on Capitol Hill; and Randle Highlands Elementary in Southeast Washington.

"We have a rare opportunity to bring transformative projects that will improve neighborhoods across the city," Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a statement. "We are looking for capable, creative partners with great ideas for these sites."

But the initiative has drawn criticism from some schools advocates, who say it squanders valuable public buildings that could be used for charter schools or other educational purposes. "I question whether this is good academic policy and whether it is sound economic policy," said D.C. State Board of Education member Mary Lord.

The future of the schools has been under discussion since the end of the 2007-08 academic year, when Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee shut down 23 buildings. They said that declining enrollment had left the schools underused and that the money needed to keep them open could be better spent elsewhere.

In June, the administration announced that seven of the buildings would be used for government services. That plan has since evolved, with District officials considering some of the sites for housing and retail development. The District later invited charter schools and nonprofit groups to submit proposals on some of the buildings, including the former Backus Middle School in Ward 5.

The intent of yesterday's solicitation to developers is to "ask the market what's possible there and what they'd like to do," said Sean Madigan, Albert's spokesman.

The options, he said, could include housing, retail space, offices and educational facilities. "We're waiting to see what we get back, and as soon as we get them back, we'll have community meetings, and then we'll go from there," he said.

D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee, said he's concerned that the credit crunch will hinder redevelopment of the properties. "No one can find the money right now," he said.

The District is counting on economic conditions to shift by the time developers are ready to begin construction, Madigan said. "The last thing we want is for the schools to sit idle for years and years and waste away while we try to figure out what do with them," he said. "We're not going to allow these schools to sit fallow."

The District's announcement prompted criticism from Robert Cane, the leader of a charter school advocacy group, who said he was "extremely disappointed" that more charters weren't invited to negotiate with the District for use of the buildings.

Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said several charter schools made proposals on properties listed by the District yesterday, including four that submitted plans for Stevens, five for Grimke Elementary in Northwest, four for Hines and one for Randle Highlands.

Of the school buildings for which proposals were solicited in September, according to Cane, 18 charters made 33 offers. But just six charter schools have been invited to negotiate with the city.

Cane said the results reflect the District's lack of commitment to the charter school movement and more interest in the welfare of the commercial real estate sector.

"This administration, just like the administration before them, has not embraced charter schools and does not feel an obligation that D.C. kids have a good place to go to school," he said. "It's not part of their agenda."

Madigan said the District received "a number of good responses from the charter community" and is "pursuing negotiations on several" proposals.

In addition to Backus, Grimke, Hine, Randle Highlands and Stevens, the list of buildings released yesterday includes Langston School, M.M. Washington Career High School, Slater School, Slowe Elementary School and Young Elementary School, all in Ward 5, and Rudolph Elementary in Ward 4.

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