Moving the pieces on the Growth Machine chess board or an anti-art move by DC's mayor?
There is a bunch of remonstration about how DC's new Mayor, Muriel Bowser, has blocked a number of previous development deals inked by the previous administration ("Bowser team puts hold on five projects awarded by Gray," Washington Business Journal), the latest cancellation ("Franklin School competition reopened as D.C. formally cancels museum bid," WBJ) being of a project to end the multi-decades languishing of the Franklin School.
That proposal was to reopen the building as the Institute of Contemporary Expression, to showcase the work of contemporary artists in a city that has limited venues to display such work because of how the national museums (National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and the Hirshorn Museum) and the smaller local museums (Phillips Gallery, etc.) are set up to work.
Washington Post cultural critic Philip Kennicott argues in "Mayor Muriel E. Bowser's killing of DC cultural project shows only money matters," that the decision to start over is out of a desire for the city to make more money from the project.
At first I was a little skeptical of the ICE concept, but I think it's worth considering, and an even stronger case could be made for such an institution and city support if the city had a comprehensive cultural programming and facilities plan.
(An interesting take on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao suggests that contemporary arts museums tend to have the best return on investment in terms of tourism, compared to other cultural institutions. See "Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and their Role in Transforming Societies: The Case of the Guggenheim Bilbao," Journal of Museum and Conservation Studies.)
I don't think that wanting to make more money from the site is the real issue, although that might be a consequence of the decision (probably not, because the building's monetary value is constrained in many ways).
I believe that what is going on with the decisions to review or restart the bid process for these properties has to do not with trying to get more money from the developers, but has to do more with a changing of the guard, and the opportunity the new administration has to favor a different set of developers than those that had been the favorites of previous administrations--Eastbanc got a bunch of hot sites during the Fenty and Gray Administrations.
Eastbanc, the Georgetown-based firm shepherding this project, also is the lead on the Hine redevelopment project in Capitol Hill which has many neighbors up in arms but as Mayor Bowser said in a recent community meeting is too far along to stop according to the Capitol Hill Corner blog. This is a way for the city to slap Eastbanc, which may be slightly satisfying to Capitol Hill residents.
I argue that these actions are merely an example of the newly even more empowered members of the Growth Machine flexing their muscles and favoring their supporters. Or as The Who sang in the song "Won't get fooled again," "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The end results, the actions are the same, but the actors and maybe the terms have changed a little bit.
Regarding the Growth Machine see:
-- A superb lesson in DC "growth machine" politics
-- That damn Growth Machine: developers, incentives, givebacks, accountability
A lesson from the Franklin School about community benefits agreements and proffers
Ironically, the Franklin School is a great example of a previous failure to adequately leverage DC government owned properties when development opportunities come along. Many years ago, the adjacent office building (shown to the left in the photo above) was built with zoning bonuses and as part of the agreement, the developers paid to fix the facade of the Franklin School.
The exterior was fixed, but not the interior, which continued to moulder, and was further abused when it served as a homeless shelter.
By contrast, leasing the old playground of the Sumner School for a new for profit office building not only generated money for the school system, but as part of the deal, the developer agreed to renovate the Sumner School building, which is now home of the DCPS archives and museum, and also to maintain this building for the 99-year life of the lease (given how DC Government tends to minimally maintain buildings, this is a huge win for the city).
So the school system got money from the lease, gets money from the ground lease year after year, and got a renewed cultural facility serving the school system and the city, and free maintenance of that building for 99 years.
Which type of deal, for Franklin School or for Sumner School, was better for the city?
Granted, the city didn't have the same amount of leverage concerning Franklin School. But as I've argued about the community benefits agreement negotiation process, if we had consensus priorities set in advance for the various areas of the city, we could better direct proffers in ways that have significant long term and structural change value for the various districts and neighborhoods of the city.
Focusing proffers towards fixing Franklin School and rehabilitating downtown parks (albeit owned by the National Park Service which creates other problems) would have had significant long term value Downtown, instead of the patchwork of benefits that have been received.
Labels: civic assets, crony capitalism, cultural planning, government contracting, government oversight, Growth Machine, public realm framework, real estate development, rent seeking, urban design/placemaking