Not much good, culturally, came of the last mayor of the District, and now the new one is off to a dismal start. Little more than a month into her administration, Muriel Bowser has abruptly canceled one of the most promising cultural projects to take root in the District in decades, tearing up an agreement two years in the making with the Institute of Contemporary Expression.
Led by local philanthropist Dani Levinas, the institute was set to receive the keys to one of the city’s most historic properties, the 1869 Franklin School, a brick treasure that has been empty for years. Levinas had a well-developed, thoroughly vetted and popular plan to redevelop the school as a local arts hub, with a vigorous educational program aimed at the city’s children.
The city’s office for planning and economic development has decided after a “top-to-bottom review” that it no longer supports the plan. And so we have a first, clear and painful indication that despite professed support for the arts and arts education, Bowser will prioritize the interests of commercial developers over the public well-being.
Despite her campaign promise to celebrate and foster the “creative economy,” only money matters; despite her commitment to find private partners to help the city’s children learn about the arts, she scorns one of the best proposals in years to do just that. Why? Because the city thinks it can harvest more money by turning the Franklin School over to commercial developers.
The lack of imagination in this decision staggers the mind, but the shabbiness of it is just plain old politics. The city’s “top-to-bottom review” didn’t involve any substantial communication with Levinas and didn’t include any research into his fundraising to date — which was going well. Levinas learned that after almost two years of work, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, after lining up support from key players across the cultural spectrum, after hiring full-time staff, after strong support from the local neighborhood, somehow the new administration just didn’t like the idea.
“I am speechless,” said Levinas, after the mayor’s decision to kill the project. “This is unprecedented.” Yes, he feels personally burned by it. But the hurt to the city and its residents is much deeper, with profound implications for the city’s historic preservation, and the already distressingly clubby relationship between wealthy developers and city officials. Cultural promises are made to be broken, but the love between developers and politicians is golden, and abiding, and now we know the tone Bowser will set.
The city’s reasoning, of course, makes no sense, but read the tea leaves in an official statement and it appears to be a dark day for nonprofit entities and arts organizations. “We had concerns about the financial strength of Franklin School because it relied on upfront contingent funds and anticipated user fees,” which is to say that the Institute of Contemporary Expression is a nonprofit entity, dependent on fundraising, and would have raised income through a mix of uses, including a restaurant and event rentals. If the city is now setting the bar so high for new development projects, there is no hope for cultural groups, educational endeavors and museums.
They simply don’t have the money, and money is all that matters. Never mind that the institute would have enlivened a neighborhood that pretty much goes dark when offices close at the end of the day. Never mind that the city desperately needs an open space for large temporary art exhibitions that are a staple of the cultural diet in other, more progressive, far-sighted metropolitan areas. Never mind the innumerable intangible advantages to having an institution devoted to free expression and innovation closely knit into the fabric of the downtown core.
So what comes next? The city is simply putting the school back on the market, inviting the usual deep-pocketed firms to suggest yet more desultory office space, hotels for the 1 percent and other dreary things. Of course, the Franklin School has sat vacant for years because it isn’t ideally suited to any of the usual profitable redevelopment possibilities. It is a historically landmarked building, with a designation that extends to interior space as well as the exterior. That means that adapting it for offices, residential or commercial use will be complicated and perhaps unfeasible.
Levinas’s plan was certain to fully respect the character, purpose and original architecture of the building. The chances of an equally respectful plan emerging from a new and more aggressively market-driven plan are slim. But what does historic preservation matter when there is money to be made?
“It was perfectly suited for us because we were going to take the building back to the way it was built 150 years ago,” said Levinas, who has made a study of the work and ideals of the building’s designer, architect Adolf Cluss. The German-born architect was a progressive, an advocate for light and air in public spaces, and his schools won the city of Washington international acclaim for the excellence of their design.
That’s a legacy the Institute of Contemporary Expression would have continued but, alas, a tradition Bowser has shown no interest in perpetuating.