Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The District and two D.C.-based developers have failed to reach an agreement on a long-delayed project that would have transformed the historic Grimke School site at 1923 Vermont Ave. NW into a cultural center, offices, townhouses, and mixed-use apartment buildings. Within hours of the deal collapsing, officials say they intend to choose an alternative development proposal for the site by March, through an accelerated selection process. District lawmakers approved the project last February and residents have since been calling for swift action.

Stakeholders in the busted deal—Roadside Development, the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, anticipated nonprofit tenants, and local neighborhood commissioners—each say they’re “disappointed.” As of November, Roadside, partner-developer Sorg Architects, and DMPED were negotiating a final agreement that was to govern the project’s financing, timeline, and scope. They had set a Dec. 1 deadline for sealing a needed land-disposition agreement, which lapsed late last week. Officials in the administration say the gap between council approval of the project and the hoped-for execution of the agreement was atypical of D.C. development deals.

The project was supposed to renovate the 52,000-square-foot Grimke School building, constructed in 1887, into extra space for the African American Civil War Museum, which currently occupies the school’s annex, shared performance space plus offices for arts organizations CityDance, StepAfrika!, Imagination Stage, and Dance USA, and also offices for Roadside. Roadside and Sorg had heralded the site as the District’s soon-to-be “home for the arts”—a vision U Street residents supported, citing a lack of daytime foot traffic in the area. A Sorg-owned building on 9 ½ Street NW, itself historic, was to become mixed-use and mirror a new mixed-use building to be constructed to its direct east on a 5,900-square-foot parking lot. Several townhouses to be located behind the Grimke School were also part of the plan. 

What’s left is an underutilized school that sits like an eyesore across Vermont Avenue from the African American Civil War Memorial and Metro station, just steps from U Street’s nightly hustle and bustle. Neighbors who want to see modern amenities along the corridor are furious that Grimke’s redevelopment is being kicked down the road yet again while the building continues to deteriorate. The collapse of the deal has shaken their trust in the associated development companies and their confidence in the District to successfully broker historic redevelopment projects.

“I understand the deal was hard to make and I understand the building was not in great shape when they got a hold of it, but it goes to show something about the due diligence of a company,” says Robb Hudson, a commissioner for ANC 1B. “We’re going to take much more caution when dealing with developers from here on out and with what Roadside and Sorg may want to do. It’s fair to say [they take most of the blame].”

Hudson adds that commissioners plan to ask the Office of the Attorney General to pursue legal action against the developers as ANC 1B set out in a Nov. 3 resolution, and are meeting Thursday to discuss a strategy. The resolution stated that if the project did not take off, Roadside and Sorg should be barred from District-related development deals for five and three years, respectively. It additionally said the proposed nonprofit tenants should be retained in any such project. Roadside redeveloped the nearby CityMarket at O project in Shaw and just won a major deal with a Japanese company to redevelop Fannie Mae’s headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue NW before that enterprise moves downtown.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Hudson says of the situation. “I can understand how this whole debacle could have an effect of putting a black mark on that [school], which would be tragic because it could be stunning and help the community with arts and the Civil War museum. At the same time, we’re happy to change anything to get this parcel developed.”

After ex-Mayor Vince Gray awarded Roadside and Sorg a bid on the last business day of his administration, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered a review of the proposal. Her administration re-awarded the project to Roadside and Sorg in April 2015, provided that it would contain three times as much affordable housing as originally planned in order to comply with a new law regulating development of public land. In a statement, Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner says it’s “unfortunate” the deal wasn’t realized, adding that his office will “work with urgency to move this project forward.” “It’s what the residents have asked for and what they deserve,” Kenner says.

In an interview, Richard Lake, a founding partner at Roadside, rejects characterizations that his firm and Sorg “walked away” from the agreement, explaining that developers and the District simply could not “bridge differences” regarding the project’s financing. He notes that the team sunk more than $100,000 into the proposal’s design, environmental testing, and negotiations with the administration, contending that Roadside “feels very good about our effort.” In Lake’s telling, the Grimke School had serious infrastructure and integrity issues he was surprised to discover, and future profit on the site was limited by the affordable housing requirements and nonprofit tenants.

Officials at DMPED counter that Roadside had access to the building for months, and it was the company’s own idea to redevelop the school into a cultural center. Lake says he did not “have all the data [he] needed until late in the game,” though maintains that the building ought to be redeveloped after it is fully “stabilized, secured, and cleaned.”

“The biggest concern is that there’s no place to pass on extraordinarily high costs,” Lake says. “The property has significant negative appraisal value. I could not pass costs to nonprofits [in a project of this size]. We did not want to get into a situation where we continued to go down this path and could not deliver the project to the community.”

“Sometimes, transaction deals die,” he continues. “I don’t begrudge. I wish it went better.”

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who served on ANC 1B almost a decade ago, says in a statement that she remains “deeply committed to moving the redevelopment of Grimke forward quickly, and in a way that reflects the priorities of the community.” “We have all been waiting long enough for this project to move forward,” Nadeau adds.

Meanwhile, DMPED says it expects to reopen “best and final offers” on the site within the coming weeks. Before the Gray administration selected Roadside and Sorg, two other teams had bid on the site with their own proposals. It’s likely they would have a leg up in the process. But it’s unclear whether tenants other than the African American Civil War Museum would be incorporated in whatever project emerges. The museum was included in all three initial proposals.

“This is Washington, D.C.: Everything always takes longer than you think and always costs more than you think,” reflects Frank Smith, the museum’s founding director and former Ward 1 Councilmember. “I’m disappointed we’re not going to be able to proceed with this right now. I’m shocked, really, that it didn’t go through.”

Still, Smith says, “This is just a bump in the road. This isn’t the end of the road.”