Get our free newsletter
Bill Wooby is trying to establish a gigantic arts center inside a
former D.C. junior high. If only D.C. would get the hell out.
“Are you ready for the $10 tour?” Bill Wooby asks. A pair of artists have dropped by on a mid-November afternoon to see about renting studio space in Wooby’s Millennium Arts Center (MAC)—a 150,000-square-foot complex at 65 I Street SW. It’s the former Randall Junior High School, one of the city’s many defunct school properties that it has been slow to unload. Since Wooby first laid eyes on the property, almost 22 months ago, he’s been hellbent on acquiring it. In the process, he’s gotten to know its dust-bound nooks and moldy crannies. Like a seasoned spelunker, he’s led countless small groups of artists, arts impresarios, D.C. government officials, and architects through the caverns of this shabby school, which he intends to mold into an arts center of national significance.
Mounted in a grassy setback across the street from the Bethel Pentecostal Tabernacle and Assembly of God, the red-brick complex comprises seven connected buildings: a two-story main building, built in 1910, flanked by two one-story ’20s additions, and four other wings added on back between the late ’20s and the ’50s, which surround two courtyards. Most of the parking meters out front are broken, and piles of glass shards grow up in the streets like anthills. The adjacent concrete plaza erupts with weeds. A homeless man wanders by, bags in hand.
Despite the school’s dodgy appearance and so-so neighborhood, Wooby has big plans for this baby: It will include artists’ studios, rehearsal space, an apartment hotel, gift shops, a central sculpture courtyard with cafe, around 9,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 500-seat auditorium, and two 50-seat theaters for foreign and independent films. He’s dreamed up program upon program: visiting artists’ lectures, art and culinary classes, after-school art programs for kids in the D.C. public schools.
Today, artists Eglon Daley and Judy Jashinsky have stopped by looking to rent studio space in the building’s former classrooms. Although MAC’s grand opening is slated for next October, Wooby plans to have artists move in as early as January. Jashinsky, who has her studio in one of the embattled properties at 9th and F Streets NW, is looking for a permanent space where she’s not likely to be kicked out. “This place has stability, and that’s what I want,” she says.
Wooby leads his little group down the long, linoleum-tiled hallways lined by rows of sky-blue metal lockers. He bobs his head in and out of the former classrooms, announcing his plans for each space: “This will be the 50-seat movie theater,” he declares. “This will be an artist’s studio.” Climbing to the second floor of a rear building and entering a large, airy classroom with blackboards and ratty orange carpet, Wooby says, “Picture this as a hotel room.”
Right now that picture—among many Wooby asks his guests to conjure— requires a generous suspension of disbelief. There’s a lot of work to do. Down in the basement, a recent water leak has carved cracks in the concrete floor. Squirrels visit some of the classrooms more often than people do. But those problems pale in comparison to Wooby’s recently concluded battle royale against the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) bureaucracy to secure a lease on the property.
Ever since he saw the property while touring with his real estate agent in early 1998, he began wrestling DCPS to knock Randall off the sale block. He made a compelling case against a handful of other bidders by getting the neighborhood and members of the D.C. arts community involved to push his bid through. But the red tape of sealing the deal and getting his lease took almost a year. And since he began moving in, in September, he’s found a few unwelcome bedfellows—D.C. government’s Department of Human Services and a homeless shelter—sharing the soon-to-be-art-center’s digs with him.
According to Wooby, “We lost a lot of people who wanted to be on board.” The DCPS’s delays in releasing the property forced folks interested in partnering with him—the Washington Opera among them—to find alternate spaces. Near the end of the tour, downstairs in the basement, Wooby enters a room and wheels around, facing Jashinsky and Daley. “Some guy from the Washington Opera wig department wanted this space,” he says. Turning away, he adds quietly, “But he hasn’t come back lately.”
“When I first saw this property, it screamed, ‘I’m an arts center—help me!’” Wooby says. But after all the red tape of acquiring the space, he concedes, “saying, ‘I’ll take it’ was the easy part.”
“Don’t ever do anything creative for this city,” Wooby advises on a 90-degree day in early September, when he and his assistant, Georgi Deneau, have just begun to move boxes and computers into the Randall School. Wooby and I are standing on the roof of the complex’s three-story rear building—this will be the apartment hotel. A handful of heat pumps whir noisily. The complex’s buildings butterfly before us. We approach the roof’s edge to look down into a grassy courtyard. This space will be the sculpture garden and outdoor cafe, where squirrels bound through the dandelions and cling, Spider-Man-style, to the sides of the buildings. Now that Wooby’s finally moving in—he started Labor Day weekend, soon after the DCPS offered him the long-sought lease—he’s had some time to reflect.
“Dealing with the city has not been wonderful,” Wooby sighs. “In fact, it’s been 20 months of hell.”
Wooby chose a particularly bad time to fall in love with DCPS property. “It was 20 months of firing and hiring in the bureaucracy for the job of pushing projects through,” he remembers. Wooby recalls at least three changes of staff before Gerald Cooke took over as the director of real estate for DCPS in May. Paperwork was drawn and re-drawn, promises made and broken. “We knew we had the place a year ago. The deal should have gone through a year ago,” Wooby scoffs.
To speed his cause, Wooby marshaled troops at the office of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Director of Constituent Services June Hirsh, as well as Evans himself, lobbed the DCPS with enough calls to flatten a smaller bureaucracy. “One hundred calls? A hundred-fifty calls?” Hirsh recalls. “Three calls a day sometimes… [It was] weeks and weeks of trying and not getting called back…and then meeting with this person, then that person, who would say, ‘We’ll push it through,’ and then—nothing.” Exasperated, Hirsh says simply: “It’s been insane.”
DCPS spokesperson Devonya Smith is apologetic but firm. “We’re sorry it took so long,” she says. Although she acknowledges the time it has taken for Cooke to get up to speed with his new job, she reminds me that “people need to understand that there’s a long process we have to go through for these properties….That’s no excuse, I know.”
Wooby maintains that the long wait has cost him business. Since early 1998, Wooby had been talking up the arts center at cocktail parties and art openings to anyone who would listen—and found a lot of interest. In the pages of the MAC photo album, which he shows me in his new office, there’s photo after photo of Wooby with arts presenters and government officials: Here he is next to Placido Domingo, swaddled in a dark coat to guard against the March cold. Here he is with Michael Graves, sweating out a July day as the architect takes a look around. Domingo wanted to lease some rehearsal space for the Washington Opera in MAC, but Wooby’s struggle with the DCPS over when he could occupy the property forced Domingo to look elsewhere.
“The DCPS just kept stringing him along,” says Davelene Renshaw, a Southwest resident and chair of the Arts and Culture Action Group of the Southwest Task Force. Renshaw fought along with Wooby to secure the property for an arts center. “He lost a lot of business opportunities…with people interested in leasing and renovating [parts of the building] themselves. But because he couldn’t get closure, they had to go on [and find other space].”
As for Graves, Wooby says the architect is interested in redesigning the entire complex. Wooby still needs to raise the money. In the meantime, Wooby has persuaded Graves to autograph Target toasters and blenders to auction off at MAC benefits and to put in the MAC time capsule that Wooby will bury next year.
Even after moving in, Wooby finds himself with some lingering roommates. The glass transom above the building’s entrance is emblazoned, in silvery letters, with “Department of Human Services Government of the District of Columbia.” Inside, there are doors marked “Survivors of Homicide, Inc.” and “Family Services.” Since at least 1983, Randall has served as a makeshift government office building.
When Wooby gives tours in territories occupied by the DHS, he holds his finger to his lips to shush his visitors before knocking gingerly on office doors. The workers don’t seem to mind the intrusion, but Wooby does. He can’t knock down the flimsy, incongruous temporary walls erected during the building’s transformation from school to office block until the agency vacates. Until then, he’s left tiptoeing around and stepping over the desks, chairs, and equipment that the handful of government groups have left behind over the years of moving into and out of the building.
It looks like a dumping ground. Wooby shows me into room after abandoned room piled high with computer monitors and hard drives and filing cabinets standing shoulder to shoulder.
Over the summer, DHS officials told Wooby they’d be out of Randall by September. In September, they said October. In late November, they’re still here.
Morris Vines, chief of the DHS’s office of facilities management, says that the DHS offices “will be out of the building by the end of December.” Vines says the agency has been awaiting the completion of two other DHS facilities. According to spokesperson Linda Wharton Boyd, director of the DHS’s Office of Policy, Communications, and Program Evaluations, “That’s etched in stone right now. All equipment and people will be out by Dec. 31.”
“I’ve heard that before,” says Wooby.
It also turns out that Wooby has his first tenant—and it’s not an artist renting studio space. Wooby reluctantly explains that Catholic Charities is currently using the school’s gymnasium as a homeless shelter and so far has no plans to move—and he has no plans to kick them out. The group has agreed to pay rent to Wooby, although the exact terms of the lease have yet to be sewn up. Because Graves has talked of renovating the gym for large-scale sculpture installations, Wooby is none too pleased with his tenant.
Steve Cleghorn, deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, contracts with Catholic Charities to provide homeless services on the site. Cleghorn says his group will need to develop capacity elsewhere for the folks housed in the shelter’s 170 beds. That could take “as long as another year,” he estimates. Plus, there’s an even stickier matter: In 1996, the D.C. government got a $250,000 emergency shelter grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and used some of those funds to renovate the Randall gym for homeless services. That grant stipulates that the property must remain a shelter for 10 years. If Catholic Charities leaves, the District has to pay HUD back the difference. Cleghorn says his group is putting together a strategic plan to find additional sites, but “it’s going to take a couple of years.”
Wooby plans to assemble enough money for the mortgage to buy the $5 million property by early next spring. But even when he purchases the place, Wooby says the contract will likely include a 10-year oversight clause so that DCPS can keep an eye on how he’s using the property.
Wooby sighs: “I will always be married to the school board.” CP