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“Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s killing of D.C. cultural project shows only money matters.”
When Bowser set out to review major development contracts awarded by her predecessor, Vince Gray, that’s surely not the headline she wanted. But the announcement by her administration yesterday that it was vacating the development rights to the old Franklin School that had been granted to the Institute for Contemporary Expression and putting the space up for new bids has been met with ire from the D.C. arts community. And no one’s been more irate than Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott.
“We have a first, clear and painful indication that despite professed support for the arts and arts education, Bowser will prioritize the interests of commercial developers over the public well-being,” Kennicott continued in his screed Tuesday, under the headline above that left no room for confusion. “Despite her campaign promise to celebrate and foster the ‘creative economy,’ only money matters; despite her commitment to find private partners to help the city’s children learn about the arts, she scorns one of the best proposals in years to do just that.”
Kennicott quotes ICE’s leader, Dani Levinas, doing the verbal equivalent of throwing up his hands in disbelief. Why, he asked, would Bowser scrap this plan that was going so well—-and why would she do it without so much as a meeting to warn him?
There’s a fundamental disagreement here over money. An administration official said last month, when the project was under review, that the fundraisers for the museum were “nowhere near their goal, and there’s no reason to think that would change.” Levinas countered that he and his partners were on track to raise the requisite funds, and that Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner, who oversees the development rights, had never even asked them how much they’d raised.
It’s hard to assess who’s right, given that neither side has shared much information. Levinas has not publicly disclosed his fundraising totals. And Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for Kenner, declines to say whether the Bowser administration has any knowledge of the fundraising haul thus far.
Instead, McPeek makes Bowser’s case on the basis of financial risk aversion. He says Gray’s move to hand the Franklin School building over to ICE before the museum had raised funds ran counter to standard practice, and notes that D.C. is a tough environment for arts facilities that charge for entry, given the preponderance of free museums.
“We had concerns about the financial strength of the Franklin School project,” McPeek says, “because it relied on up-front contingent funds and user fees.”
McPeek also hints that the museum might not have served all residents of the city if entrance fees were high. “The mayor’s committed to investing in the city’s creative economy,” he says, “but she wants to make sure that residents of all eight wards can benefit.”
Still, there are questions about the benefit residents will derive from a different use for the Franklin School. Three other would-be developers bid for the site in 2013; one proposed a boutique hotel, while the other two pitched tech offices. These projects would aid the city insofar as they’d boost its bottom line, but average residents are unlikely to enjoy them much.
The Franklin School is just one of five major projects the Bowser administration is reviewing, and more could be on the way. In other words, this is unlikely to be the last big development fight of Bowser’s first year in office.
Rendering from DMPED; photo by Aaron Wiener