Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, August 23, 2013

DC wastes $122 million on new high school: evidence of failures in capital improvements planning and budgeting

While DC politicos and alumni of Dunbar High School celebrate the construction of a new school ("DC leaders, alumni to celebrate new Dunbar High School facility" from the Post), all I can think of is how the project is a waste of money.

Photo from NBCWashington.

There is double irony, because it's also an example of the failure of urban renewal.  Controversial at the time, the original historic building was torn down in the early 1970s in favor of the construction of an urban renewal crappy building.  The controversy made New Yorker Magazine.

But the building, typical of buildings constructed at that time, only lasted about 40 years and was in turn demolished.

Talk about waste.  And a focus on the glitter of the new ("Slideshow: The New Dunbar High School" from the City Paper) allows for the avoidance of important questions. 

1.  DC doesn't have a public process for capital improvements planning and budgeting.

One of the constant drumbeats on this blog is that DC should have a public process for capital improvements planning and budgeting.  Virtually every other jurisdiction in the US does.  Instead, the CFO office has a unit that deals with it, but except for NGO type projects like the Convention Center, it's mostly done on an annual basis, through the budgeting process.

So there isn't good attention paid to what the money is being spent on, and how well or not it is being spent.

2.  DC doesn't capture learning to build more highly functioning facilities as part of the capital improvements process.  Mostly the city merely copies what was done before.  See the past blog entries "Prototyping and municipal capital improvement programs," and "Another take on municipal capital improvement planning" for more details.  For example, with all of the millions of dollars spent on recreation centers--more than $100 million, DC Parks and Recreation doesn't have an indoor track.

3.  DC doesn't leverage investment and integrate agency services/co-locate functions.
Compare that to many jurisdictions such as Austin, Texas ("Public assets: public school buildings used for more than school") or Seattle (Neighborhood Service Centers).  Arlington County, Virginia does this a lot with their libraries and schools and cultural and other functions.  Baltimore County, Maryland has co-located a library and senior wellness center in one building.  Etc.

Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library.  Wikipedia image.

4.  DC isn't very good at using public investments in buildings and agency location in ways that strengthen neighborhoods.  

See my recent blog entry "Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement" and "The many moving parts of the stadium deal" from the Washington City Paper.

For example, in Portland's Hollywood neighborhood ("A Living Library: Putting housing above a public library, Portland takes another pioneering step toward urban density," Metropolis Magazine), putting a library in as an element of a housing development in a neighborhood commercial district, along with a cafe, added needed elements that strengthened a commercial district.

Watha T. Daniel Public Library, DCContrast that to how the 7th and Rhode Island Avenue NW intersection could have been strengthened with a cafe as the ground floor of the new library there (Watha T. Daniel Library, pictured at right).

The library is cool, but when it's closed, it's closed.

Oh, and the Daniel Library rebuild is another example of tearing down an urban renewal building that was a piece of junk.  Again, the building was up for less than 40 years.

5.  Most of DC's high schools are severely under-enrolled.  So when you have the chance to close a school, this provides the opportunity to strengthen the remaining schools.

Most of DC's public high schools were built for large enrollments.  Only two schools have enrollments greater than 1,000 students.  Most of the schools are under 800 students, many around 500 students.  (The data in this report are old, and show higher enrollments for most schools.)  But the schools have strong traditions and alumni networks, so the pressure is always on to keep the school open.

Granted, I am torn between the conclusions of the classic tome in community psychology, Big School, Small School, which advocates for smaller schools which provide more opportunity for students to get involved and be engaged, versus the conclusions of Harvard President James Conant, who in the book Comprehensive High School, advocates for the large school, which has the scale to offer a wide variety of potentially strong programs.

By having too many small high schools, each ends up being mediocre.  See the past blog entry "The fourth problem with schools planning in DC: over over capacity, which is further expanded with each new school."

Rebuilding Dunbar High School instead of just tearing it down extends the mediocrity rather than helps to staunch it. 

It also represents $122 million that could have been invested in other capital improvements.

6.  There is no guarantee that a public capital improvements planning and budgeting process would have better results.

If there were a public process for capital improvements planning, there is no guarantee that there would have been enough power to stop the construction of a new high school when one is not needed, but with the right process, a consideration of overall demand, etc., it would have been easier to stop.

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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully in the near future the newer affluent DC parents will be able to force the city to make it less dangerous to send their kids to school in new places like this.As it stnads now I do not see the city doing a thing to retain the young familes that have invested so much in improving the city of late. Gray has basically sat on the fence. he has done nothing at all. I think back to what my dad said about old Central High- [ now Cardozo] he told me that it was rated as one of the greatest high schools in the entire nation and parents from Chevy Chase and Fairfax- real gentry- paid tuition to the DC government to send their kids in to go to school here. Maybe that day will return ?

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in other words the city needs to embark on a major program to improve the city's middle and high schools in order to retain the families here who have invested money and faith into this place. They will leave the city if they are not given their proper due. This could be catastrophic for DC and reverse much of the progress that has gone down here in the last 10 years if left unattended.

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I've said before DC should be building a magnet school and plan to enroll MD and VA students as well.

You can't shrink youself into growth.

That being said, one aspect of the school renovations is the atheltic facilities seem to be used by the local neighboorhoods. I've yet to see black teenagers play on the cardozo field, but everyday there is some local group using it. perhaps that will change once school starts.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes, dc schools used to be great.

Normally, I am a fan of growth strategies, but there is something to be said for "shrink to success." I was talking with someone about this issue recently (her husband is a high level official at a school district in MD) and we "marveled" at how few students go to Eastern HS and McKinley HS (and Coolidge and Roosevelt). Many tens of millions was spent on renovations of EHS and MHS. Many tens of millions is scheduled to be spent on CHS and RHS. Much was just spent on Cardozo. Etc.

Yes, I think there could be more demand if the schools were better. That will happen with the current footprint probably. But if Dunbar had closed, Eastern, McKinley, and Cardozo all could have grown somewhat and become more stable.

I also think Ellington should be moved to either Coolidge or Roosevelt (Coolidge is on the Red Line, Roosevelt has the advantage of being on the green line with a one stop transfer from the red line at Fort Totten) which are by the Metro, and Western could be converted back to a "neighborhood" high school, drawing off some of the overcapacity of Wilson.

Yes., it's good to see community grops using school facilities. The track at Coolidge is open to the public outside of school hours.

Magnet idea is interesting.

I would also do "cooperative" high school, not unlike how Northeastern U does it. At some of the schools anyway. That would "increase" capacity of the schools because many students would be out in the field at job-internships their jr. and sr. years (maybe the first year would be all in-class, the second year would be mostly in-class with some structured field learning, jr. and sr. year would be half in-class, half in the field).

It would also be work experience.

It couldn't be bullshit jobs like the Summer Youth Program. There would have to be a well developed system of support, training, etc., just like how Northeastern University does it for their college programs. (My brother went to their law school, which after the first year, half the year--in quarters--was in placements.)

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what no one is saying is that as of now, the middle and high schools in DC are defacto- segregated- and this needs to change. Truth be told- if someone wanted to send their kid to school at Eastern- the kid would likely get the $hit kicked out of him/her on the first day because they are "different". The city needs to do something about this or the young families we have now will all leave. Dont kid yourself- they will. Again- nobody is willing to talk about this problem directly. And everyone knows it is the main problem here in DC. I went to school here- I know.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Mari said...

I'm glad the old Dunbar prison-like building will be torn down. That building is ugly as all out and I don't want to see it no more.
Yes, it would have been great if the school without walls idea worked, or if the concept of having no windows also worked, but it didn't so how long should the schools keep up a bad idea?
Also maybe, who knows, maybe this building will have better maintenance. The Prison building had deplorable conditions inside the restrooms and swimming pool area. Hope springs....

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous thm said...

Relatively minor point considering the overall focus of this post: There is a strong argument that the entire "small school" line of reasoning is based on a fundamental misunderstanding (or outright ignorance) of the relationship between statistical variation and sample size, known as de Moivre's equation. Not sure if this is behind a paywall (I can read it at work) but this brief article discusses the statistics problem in general and the small schools part in particular (on page 4).

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Cardozo "campus" opened as well, but swimming pool delayed Another 128 million.

Off the envelope, that is enough to send the student body of both schools to private boarding schools for 10 years.

Or create a really good public school with a 250M endowment....

I know that as a week ago students enrollment at the "Shaw middle class at Garnett/Patterson at the Cardozo campus" was was down as a result of the move/close.

That being said, both look like beautiful buidings. Dunbar's new one (drove by last night) seems quite set off from the New Jersey ave. what is going to happen to old buildings/space?

For Richard's links:

("Over the past decade, the number of African American men killed on the streets of Oakland nearly matched the number who graduated from its high schools ready to attend a state university.")

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Dan Reed said...

How did this cost DCPS $122 million? Montgomery County was able to build a new Paint Branch High School (and like Dunbar, they built a new school next to the old, 1960's-era building and then knocked it down) for just $81 million and it can hold 2000 kids. I mean, MCPS high schools don't have pools, but still!

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Dan -- DK, good question. I guess we'd have to go to both schools and do a comparison.

thm -- yes, the article is blocked. How about the cite.

Anyway, we might be talking about different things. The modern small school movement is different from what Barker was writing about, I think.

His point was that in small schools, and he was comparing rural schools really, to city schools, that you had the same basic number of activities, but because you had fewer students they got involved, on average, in more stuff. Whereas in the larger schools, there was more specialization, and not only did fewer students participate overall, but also certain students became "hogs" and disproportionately participated, e.g. maybe the head cheerleader was the lead in the school play, homecoming queen, etc., where in the rural school, there was more divvying up.

charlie -- thanks for the link. Troubling. (And I have a file started now for my "position paper" which this will go into.)

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I love the DC public libraries but you bring up a good point: Why isn't housing built above (or below) them? Hell, considering the number of homeless people that use them the space above could be used as a shelter or cheap housing.

I never thouhgt of it this way.

You are very sharp.

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