The District is close to an agreement with a private developer to revitalize a long-vacant public property on the border of the booming U Street and Shaw neighborhoods in Northwest.
Though the details of the deal are still under negotiation, Community Three Development proposed in 2014 to transform the property into a new home for the African American Civil War Museum, offices for the Silver Spring-based Torti Gallas architecture firm, space for a nonprofit arts group, retail space and townhouses.
A new mixed-use development could generate $9.2 million in taxes for the District over 10 years by removing the Grimke School parcel from the city’s untaxed real estate portfolio, according to real estate staffers in the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). The site includes the school at 1923 Vermont Ave. NW, an adjoining gymnasium and a nearby surface parking lot. The building dates to 1887.
“We are committed to getting a deal done as quickly as possible,” said Grant Epstein, president of Community Three Development.
This is the third time Community Three has vied for the right to redevelop the Grimke site.
The project hit snags in two mayoral transitions, from Mayor Adrian Fenty to Mayor Vincent Gray in 2011 and then from Gray to Bowser in 2015.
Fenty’s administration requested redevelopment proposals in 2009 but never selected a winner. Gray put out a new request and selected Roadside Development to create a residential and commercial project in 2014. But a formal deal was never signed before Bowser took office, and she insisted any new project meet tougher requirements for including affordable housing, bumping up the portion from 10 percent to 30 percent.
In 2015, Roadside agreed, and the city agreed to hand over the property in February 2016. But by December, the deal had fallen apart.
Roadside’s Richard Lake said that his team found conditions worse on the property than they had anticipated and that their plans to accommodate nonprofits and affordable housing made the project financially difficult.
“There was not enough meat on the bone to pay for unknowns,” Lake said.
The city began discussions with Community Three, the runner-up to Roadside, “immediately” after the deal with Roadside fell apart, according to Joaquin McPeek, director of communications for Brian T. Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
“The District is moving forward with a sense of urgency to get as good a deal, if not a better deal,” McPeek said.
The historic building’s location at the edge of U Street once placed it on the frontier of development.
While the Grimke School sat vacant, Shaw exploded around it as new luxury condominiums and apartments opened and retailers such as Warby Parker and Glen’s Garden Market opened their doors.
Neighbors are eager to see something happen at the site.
“We don’t even care what’s developed there now,” said Robb Hudson of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
“We see just developing the school and getting a building in the parcel beside Nellie’s [Sports Bar] as a benefit to the community in and of itself,” Hudson added.
McPeek said that if the sides come to an agreement, Community Three will not take ownership until the fall. The project would then need to go through Zoning Commission review. The realization of any plans is still years away.
“I know that everybody has wanted this to get off the ground for years, including us,” Epstein said. “But it needs to take its course and be done the right way.”
Absent a deal with Community Three by the end of March, the District will put the cluster of properties through a third round of redevelopment requests. The project would be added to the roster for “March Madness,” when the city offers up lists of city-owned properties primed for redevelopment.
Another round of redevelopment talks would leave neighbors such as longtime Vermont Avenue resident Mardicia Nana frustrated.
“It looks like a haunted house,” Nana said about the Grimke School. “Someone by now should have occupied it.”