The Bowser Administration Correctly Put a Hold on the Franklin School Proposal

The Franklin School on the corner of 13th and K Street NW is an impressive building and one I often pass on my way to work. Over the years there have been many ideas for its use, from homeless shelter to community concert space to public meeting space to hotel. The latest is a proposal by the Institute of Contemporary Expression (ICE-DC) for an interactive museum.

Bowser's predecessor, Vince Gray, selected the Institute for Contemporary Expression a year ago over three competing bids to take over the vacant former Franklin School on 13th Street NW. But Bowser, as part of a review of major contracts awarded by Gray, announced this week that her administration had vacated that contract and issued a new solicitation for development proposals for the site. Administration officials cited concerns about the museum's fundraising and long-term financial stability. One official said that the museum's fundraisers were "nowhere near their goal, and there's no reason to think that would change."

In the same column ICE-DC Executive Director Dani Levinas says about the administration's cancelling the deal, "They don't give you any information because they don't have it. I might have $10 million in the bank, or 20. They don't know." I would suggest now is the time for Levinas to come forward with proof if he actually has the money. The ICE-DC website, which apparently hasn't been updated recently, says renovations will begin at the end of 2015. If that was the plan, they should already have funds in hand, or at least committed funds, and be able to show proof of that.

Philip Kennicott recently wrote a column that suggests that the review of this project by the Bowser administration shows them to be anti-arts. This is a far cry from reality, as Mayor Bowser has a strong commitment to the arts. She often talked about the arts in her campaign and pledged to strengthen the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. One of the major committees of her transition was focused on the arts. But as a reliable steward of the city's property and taxpayers' money, she is right when I heard her say the arts are a priority for her administration and she is committed to investing in our city's creative economy, but it must be done in a way to ensure residents across all eight wards can benefit -- including from the jobs, economic development and other amenities that come with this type of investment.

Last March Elena Schneider wrote in the New York Times about the ICE-DC project and included questions about its financing potential:

[F]inding financial backing in a city already committed to national institutions may prove difficult. "It is a bit harder for arts institutions at the local level to do well in Washington because there is not a large political arts institution that can help support them," said Thomas Luebke, secretary to the United States Commission of Fine Arts here. "The question is, can they find a good business model and public-sector support?"

So the ICE-DC group should have realized at that time they would have to provide proof that the project was financially viable.

The question to ask with regard to this project isn't whether the mayor has a commitment to the arts -- she does -- but whether asking the deputy mayor for economic development to review and evaluate all the projects in the pipeline not yet begun to determine their value and relevance to all the citizens of the District is correct. It would seem that this is what we want a new administration to do. Some of the projects will get the green light from the new administration, while others will need to be reimagined or nixed for many possible reasons.

After speaking with a consultant to the ICE-DC project, I don't believe they have answered all the questions the mayor's office and the council would need answered before this project would be allowed to advance. It isn't enough for ICE-DC to say they are an arts project. They are undertaking to obtain a landmark building, which would cost millions to renovate, and their website doesn't have a detailed plan of what they will do with it, how they will fund it initially and maintain it for the long run, or the kind of economic impact it will have on the District and who will benefit from its existence. These are all questions ICE-DC should have been prepared to answer long ago if they wanted this project to get a green light.