D.C. MAYOR Muriel E. Bowser (D) is right to review major economic development decisions made in the final months of her predecessor’s administration. Successful implementation now falls on her shoulders, and the District has learned the hard way the problems of last-minute deals that can’t be undone. The process, though, must be fair, transparent and convincing, conditions that aren’t apparent in the recent decision to change direction in the development of the Franklin School.
The new administration’s economic development team rescinded the designation of a nonprofit to develop the historic downtown building into a modern art center that would host temporary exhibitions and include a restaurant and bookstore.
The Franklin School is a District jewel, but its historic designation and deteriorated interior have made it notoriously difficult to develop; it has stood empty for years. Last year, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) selected the Institute for Contemporary Expression, partnering with EastBanc, over other options to transform the building, but the agreement required D.C. Council approval and was never finalized. Ms. Bowser was within her rights to terminate the arrangement, a decision administration officials attributed to an examination that raised questions about the project’s viability and pointed up unacceptable financial risks to the District.
There may be legitimate questions about this project — particularly given the difficulty that admission-charging museums have in competing successfully in a city where so many attractions are free. But the Bowser administration’s changing explanations of the project’s alleged weaknesses, the haste in reaching the decision and the lack of any meaningful consultation give us pause.
If, as officials first said, there are concerns about the group’s ability to raise funds, why not get detailed information about their plans or ask to look at its books? If, as is the current explanation, the disposition agreement puts the District at unusual risk, why not negotiate better protections? The District never sat down with the project’s principals to discuss its concerns — so much for that “top-to-bottom” review — but instead simply pulled the plug. The art center developers, the administration told us, are welcome to participate in a new solicitation for the building.
It doesn’t seem to occur to the administration that the group might not want to waste more time and effort having already won a competitive selection process and having been given no adequate explanation for the subsequent disqualification. Indeed, the apparent caprice of this process is likely to cause others to have second thoughts about doing business with the District. Why compete if you aren’t going to get a fair shake?
Ms. Bowser needs to revisit this issue. We think she has been unfairly criticized for having an animus to the arts, but her economic development team ought to sit down with the principals of the project in an effort to come up with workable solutions — or explain why there are none. A failure to try will send an unfortunate message about what can be expected from this new administration.