Barely a month in office, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has shelved a plan to turn the former Franklin School downtown into a contemporary art museum and has begun seeking other companies interested in redeveloping the building.
Dani Levinas, a local art collector who was selected a year ago by then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray to turn the crumbling brick building into a home for contemporary art exhibitions, said that despite being told by economic development staff shortly after Bowser took office that the project was being reviewed, he was stunned by the decision.
“I have no idea why they did it,” Levinas said. “And the thing is, there is no way to figure it out. This building has been sitting empty for seven years, and if they start the process again it will take another two years.”
Though his plan required raising $13.2 million, Levinas said he and developer Anthony Lanier had been courting wealthy donors and were well on the way to raising sufficient money. They had also won the support of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the neighborhood’s council member, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
But when Bowser came into office, the end came quickly and firmly. Levinas said he was informed Monday in an e-mail from Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, that the city had terminated negotiations. By Monday afternoon Kenner, in his sixth day on the job, had posted a new request for qualified bidders interested in the property. Companies interested in responding were given only six weeks to do so.
Mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek confirmed the decision to terminate negotiations, saying in an e-mail that the District was concerned about the project’s viability. Pay-for-entry museums, as Levinas proposed, have not always fared well in Washington, given the ubiquity of free Smithsonian attractions.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to District residents to measure the feasibility of projects based on strong business principles and market viability,” McPeek said. “We had concerns about the financial strength of Franklin School because it relied on upfront contingent funds and anticipated user fees.”
Despite its location on K Street overlooking Franklin Square, redeveloping Franklin School is considered particularly difficult because of how badly it deteriorated during the years when it was used as a homeless shelter. Historic preservation rules prevent much of the building’s exterior or interior from being altered for use as a hotel or office building.
A District official previously asserted that Levinas was behind on fundraising for the project, which Levinas and Lanier deny. Levinas said Kenner had not asked for any information about how much money he had raised. “I thought we were going to sit down and negotiate,” Levinas said.
Instead, he got the termination letter.
“All that we wanted to do was something that would compliment the city,” he added.
Bowser is the fourth D.C. mayor to try to redevelop the building, following Gray, Adrian M. Fenty and Anthony A. Williams.
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