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U Street area residents are fuming as the District and developers trade blame over why a dilapidated school building remains underdeveloped. The holdup imperils the future of the historic site and nonprofits that expect to move in.
Frustrations over the former Grimke School, constructed in 1887 and named after emancipated slave turned civil rights leader Archibald Grimke, have reached a near boiling point. Almost two years after ex-Mayor Vince Gray, in the twilight hours of his mayorship, selected D.C.-based firms Roadside Development and Sorg Architects to jointly refurbish the site, the companies have yet to sign a land disposition agreement that would allow work to proceed.
Neighbors are bewildered by a nine-month delay since the D.C. Council greenlighted redevelopment of the 52,000-square-foot school building plus an adjacent 5,900-square-foot lot—both owned by the District—in February. And officials within Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration describe this time gap between council approval and project execution as unprecedented. They remain in negotiations with Roadside and Sorg over a final agreement.
“We’re really disappointed that this still hasn’t been done,” says Frank Smith, founding director of the African American Civil War Museum (AACWM), which has operated out of the Grimke School since 2011. “We should be in the permitting phase now. We’ve been at this a long time and intend to stay in it until the very end.” (Smith also served as Ward 1 councilmember for 16 years.)
Expectations for a cultural center to occupy the renovated school are high, given that the District failed to secure a development team for the site several years ago. When Bowser became mayor, she ordered a review of Gray’s last-minute development deals, and in April 2015 ultimately re-awarded the Grimke bid to Roadside and Sorg. But the deal contained a key difference from before: three times as much affordable housing, in order to comply with a new law.
Local community members charted the latest vision for the Grimke School building back in 2014. The AACWM would fill more than 13,000 square feet of the refurbished school, across two floors and with two new galleries: one initially featuring an exhibit on the Civil War history of Michelle Obama’s family, the other on the legacy of equal voting rights. Performance groups CityDance, StepAfrika!, Imagination Stage, and Dance USA would lease studio and administrative space. The rest of the building would contain offices, including some for Roadside. The firm pitched and has continued to promote the site as “D.C.’s home for the arts.”
The project involves a significant amount of housing along the alley-like 9 ½ Street NW. Seven four-story townhomes totaling 14 units would be built behind the school, while a six-story condo building with 35 units and ground floor retail would go up next to Nellie’s Sports Bar. Sorg would convert its historic Murray Casino building into a mixed-use one, in a way that would architecturally complement Roadside’s new structure to its immediate east.
Hence the dismay that the development has taken so long to launch. “We think the plan as it is right now is a fantastic plan,” says Robb Hudson, who chairs ANC 1B’s economic development committee. “The school is blighted and it could be a nice addition to the corridor.”
So exasperated by the delay are residents like Hudson that on Nov. 3 the neighborhood commission passed a resolution calling on Bowser’s administration to pursue legal action against the developers if the agreement isn’t finalized by December. Under this scenario, the ANC would want the District to bar Roadside and Sorg from public real estate projects for five and three years, respectively, and to reissue an “accelerated” solicitation for the Grimke School that retains the same tenants.
“Someone has to come in and be the mean people, even though we can’t do anything about it [legally]” as an ANC, Hudson adds. “I would rather be told, ‘Look, we can’t make this work’ than have a developer drag their feet and have the city cut ties with them. That’s not good business.”
A spokesman for the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, whose office oversees the project, says the District is prepared to sign the agreement, and is committed to it being in line with the process that set the vision for the site. “We’ve never been in this situation this late in the game,” he notes, adding that DMPED has “not taken a position” on a potential lawsuit. “Our main focus is to execute the land disposition agreement.”
A representative for Sorg Architects declined to comment. RichardLake, a founding partner at Roadside Development, which revitalized a 19th-century building into a Giant grocery store for its City Market at O project in Shaw, says the company has been working “daily” with the administration to find a “path forward,” and has made “good progress.” He calls Dec. 1 a “realistic deadline” for clinching the agreement, but cautions that even then it would take about four years to build out the $35 million project, given required zoning review and the time needed for both rehab work and new construction.
Lake declines to specify what concessions would appease the development team, citing ongoing negotiations, but outlines two major concerns that, in his telling, have held up the project. First, the 130-year-old school has integrity problems. Second, the expected use limits future profit.
“Whenever a building has sat dormant and systems are turned off, you can have structural and environmental issues,” such as parts that are difficult to access and water penetration, Lake explains. “We are dealing with all of the above. It’s an old building that has not seen much love in a while.”
These challenges introduce high costs. In addition, the developer says only the townhomes and 22 of the multi-family units would go for market rate because of affordable housing standards.
“You combine that with one-third of the Grimke School being non-income producing, along with whole millions of dollars of additional costs, [and] it doesn’t take a financial degree to figure out that you go upside down,” Lake says. If a deal is achieved, it would be “within the boundaries of the density we’ve already proposed,” he continues. “If I could have done it before, I would have.”
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau says she’s “optimistic” the project will advance “in the near future,” but points out that the building’s conditions “shouldn’t come as a surprise or shock” to anyone. “The extent of the damage has been known from the beginning,” she says. “It is a very lucrative deal, and important to get done.” The DMPED spokesman says Sorg toured the building in 2014, and Roadside had six months to access the building last year, and six more months this year. (Lake says he informed D.C. of a few pre-existing issues early in 2016, which took time to fix.)
Meanwhile, the project’s neighbors and associated nonprofits are crossing their fingers for the best. Since the ANC approved its resolution, a community listserv for U Street has buzzed with troubled chatter. “When you ask residents to spend valuable time participating in the process, and then government, and in this case, developers, do not follow through on their commitment, it can lead to mistrust and lack of faith in our officials and institutions,” one woman wrote this week.
C. Brian Williams, executive director of StepAfrika!, says his group is excited for the dedicated space the Grimke School offers, but recognizes that the project was never going to be “quick and easy.” “I’m ready when the time is right and when we know that all the things we have no control of have been taken care of,” he says. “We would love for it to be worked out beautifully.”
Williams and others could have a solid answer in the coming days. “If we’re able to come to an agreement with the city, we’ll move forward,” Lake concludes. “If we’re not, I would walk away feeling very well that we did everything we could to bring this to life.”