The Franklin School, at 13th and K streets NW. (TWP)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) is feuding with proponents of a planned contemporary art museum over the future of the Franklin School, with the mayor putting the brakes on the project for a supposed lack of fundraising that its supporters say is not a concern.

Under Mayor Vincent. C. Gray, the District’s plan was to turn the Franklin School, a vacant former homeless shelter downtown, into a home for contemporary art exhibitions, similar to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, with a restaurant downstairs by famed chef José Andrés.

Barely three weeks into her administration, Bowser (D) has set the project aside, withdrawing legislation that would authorize it and firing the project manager overseeing it.

Her staff asserted that the project’s supporters, led by local art collector and businessman Dani Levinas, had missed fundraising deadlines, which Levinas and his supporters steadfastly dispute.

Bowser’s reluctance to approve the museum plan is the latest chapter in a decade’s worth of efforts to re-use a building that is cherished for its historic past and stately architecture, but difficult to redevelop.

Designed by Smithsonian architect Adolf Cluss and built in 1869, the Franklin School was the site of experiments by telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell and became the District’s first high school.


An interior stairwell. (Institute for Contemporary Expression)

D.C.’s last three mayors, Anthony A. Williams, Adrian M. Fenty and Gray, all tried to put the building back to productive use. But it remains vacant and in decrepit condition — plagued by rodent infestation and a leaking roof — after years of poor maintenance when it was used as a homeless shelter. It is so closely defended by historic preservation rules that even the interior walls may not be reconfigured.

Gray selected the museum plan after receiving pitches from four development teams. Levinas partnered with D.C. developer EastBanc to propose turning the building into an art space called the Institute for Contemporary Expression, capable of large-scale, highly visible temporary exhibitions that traditional museums are often unable to accommodate.

Levinas and EastBanc committed to raising $13.2 million for the project, and planned to generate future revenue by charging patrons for entry after the museum opened.

Pay-to-entry museums have not always fared well in Washington, where free museums are abundant, and Bowser made her reservations about the project clear when she was on the D.C. Council. On Oct. 3 of last year, Gray submitted a bill to approve the Franklin School deal, but Bowser, chair of the economic development committee, never brought it up for a vote.

As mayor, the deal fell immediately into her cross-hairs, and she withdrew it Jan. 27. Members of her economic development team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because incoming Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner had not joined the administration, said Levinas and his team had missed fundraising deadlines.

“It’s taken a very long time and they’re nowhere near their goal,” one official said.

But Levinas and Anthony Lanier, owner of EastBanc, said that the fundraising timeline doesn’t begin until the council and mayor approve the deal for the building. They said the agreement stipulated that the project raise half of the required money, a sum of nearly $7 million, within a year of the bill’s passage.

“The language is very clear,” Levinas said. “It says three days after the council approval the 365 days start, to raise 50 percent.”

Levinas said fundraising thus far was “doing great” and that he had met all his internal goals. He said Bowser’s staff had never asked how much had been raised.

“How do they know if we don’t have the money? They haven’t even asked us,” he said.

Lanier said it was the District that had not lived up to its part of the bargain. “It’s been sitting at the council. I can’t explain why it was not moved forward or why it is not moving forward,” he said.

A former D.C. official familiar with the project, speaking anonymously to avoid crossing the administration, agreed that the timeline to secure dollars for the project hadn’t begun.

“They weren’t even supposed to start fundraising until after the [agreement] got executed,” the official said.

At nearly the same time they were informed that the museum was being put on hold, Levinas and Lanier say they were also told that the city’s staffer for the project, Reyna Alloro, had been abruptly dismissed from her job. Alloro declined comment.

Mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek declined to provide the proposed fundraising timeline because doing so would “compromise the competitive process.” Bowser said in a speech to a real estate group last week that she was performing a “top-down review” of the city’s real estate portfolio, and McPeek said the review of Franklin was part of that process.

“We have a responsibility to the residents of the District that whatever projects that are in our pipeline are viable and able to be delivered to the District,” he said. He declined to discuss Alloro’s dismissal, saying it was a personnel matter.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose district includes Franklin, said he had “asked the mayor to look at it as quickly as she can.”

“Franklin has been a difficult project for many, many, many years so finally with Anthony Lanier’s proposal we have a project that appears workable, so I was hoping we could go forward with it,” he said.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Adolf Cluss.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz