The D.C. government ordered a halt Wednesday to construction of a private school inside a landmark edifice on Connecticut Avenue NW as city officials review whether the project has necessary building permits.
The stop-work order posed a potential challenge for Whittle School & Studios as it prepares to open in September in an office complex once known as the Intelsat building. A sister campus is slated to open at the same time in Shenzhen, China.
“We are looking into whether work was performed without a permit,” said Tim Wilson, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The office of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), which has been tracking the project, raised questions this week about whether the school’s construction team had secured necessary authorization.
Educational entrepreneur Chris Whittle, the school’s chairman and chief executive, said the $187 million project has all the approvals required under federal law and does not need a building permit from the city. The building is on land the federal government owns and oversees under a 1968 law related to development of foreign embassies.
“We are completely in compliance in every way with our project and our construction,” Whittle said Wednesday evening. “We’re preparing a document for all parties that demonstrates that. And we’re confident that everyone will shortly agree.”
Among the evidence he cited for his position, Whittle pointed to a September 2017 letter from the State Department that affirms planned uses of the building.
Asked about that letter, a State Department official wrote in an email Wednesday: “The Department’s position is this renovation project is subject to the laws of the District of Columbia. The Department refers you to the District of Columbia government for a determination of whether this project requires a District building permit.”
Last year, Whittle announced the launch of what he calls “the first global school.” The D.C. campus aims to enroll 2,500 students within five years. Tuition will be $42,050 for preschool to kindergarten in the 2019-2020 school year and $49,115 for grades 1 to 12. Those are rates for day students. Others who live on campus will pay boarding fees. The school says it will offer financial aid and merit scholarships.
The 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW complex was built in the 1980s for a telecommunications satellite organization that left several years ago. It is a series of octagonal pods and atriums designed by Australian architect John Andrews. Whittle plans major renovations inside but no significant changes to the distinctive space-age exterior of glass and aluminum. Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the school’s interior.
A few tenants remain who are not part of the Whittle project. Among them is a day-care center for about 75 children expected to move later this year. Some parents have complained about construction near the center, but Whittle said he is taking steps to address their concerns and ensure the children’s safety.