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Schools Monday: After The Closings

At the end of this school year, more than a dozen D.C. public schools will shut down forever--or at least for a very long time--and a bunch more will close in the next few years. What happens to those buildings next is at the heart of both the worries of the schools' neighbors and the dreams of the city's leaders.

Mayor Adrian Fenty told me Friday that he has decided that none of the schools--not even downtown's Stevens Elementary, which sits in the heart of the K Street office strip--will be sold. That should allay the fears of anti-closings activists who have spent many months spreading the idea that the city is "selling off" public properties. I say it should allay their fears, but surely it will not, because many of those activists wouldn't believe a city official's word even if the message was that the sun would rise in the morning.

But what exactly will happen to the school buildings remains unclear. Chancellor Michelle Rhee says the disposition of the buildings is out of her hands, and Fenty says the District will put all of the buildings into its inventory and then assign them new uses "as soon as possible." He said he's aware of the concern many parents and other residents have that the school buildings will become eyesores, attracting vandals and other bad guys.

"It's inescapable that the charter schools have a built-in preference" for the emptied buildings, Fenty said, and indeed city law requires the District to offer facilities to charter schools first. Goodness knows the charters are desperate for space; many of the schools operate in buildings largely unsuited for education--churches, office buildings, warehouses. Few charters have a full complement of indoor and outdoor study and play spaces.

But the closed schools will also be used for city government workers, Fenty said. He hopes to move some city agencies--possibly including the school system's central headquarters--from expensive downtown rented space into school buildings in the neighborhoods, saving money and bringing city services closer to where people live.

I asked Fenty if people might end up living in any of the closed buildings--after all, some schools closed in previous waves of downsizing have become well designed and very expensive condos. Former schools in the Eckington and Logan Circle areas have become apartments with gorgeous high-ceilinged rooms--the apartments come with painful heating bills but dramatic living spaces.

Fenty said that's possible, but only as long-term leases; the city will not sell off properties, but is open to letting some be used for housing. Even then, however, he said there will not be a repeat of the conversions to high-end housing that we saw in the past. When Fenty's staff studied what Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chief Joel Klein did in New York, he said they found that "selling off the buildings too quickly can come back to haunt you."

"I would expect a variety of uses," the mayor said. "Housing is an option, but if it's on government-owned land, there has to be a large affordable housing component" to the project.

By Marc Fisher |  February 4, 2008; 7:37 AM ET
Previous: Break Up To Make Up: The Politics of School Closings | Next: Back To The Real Agenda in Richmond


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What I find very surprising is that there is a groundswell against selling the school land to developers. If one were to, lets say, auction the land the city would get the money from the land and then put the money to good use before buying new land for a new school in 20 years, is that not a proper use of public property?

What is the advantage to holding onto land in areas that will no longer have students, like areas where all the houses were removed and offices built? Ok, sure, these can and should be used as office space, but what if the buildings are ill-suited for offices, with large cafeterias, gyms and playgrounds? What then?

I think that the city should not let a dozen or so angry misanthropes who level UFO conspiracies at the city control the dialog. When people told me that the city would sell the public land to developers, I ask them, why is this a bad thing? Neither had a good answer.

Posted by: DCer | February 4, 2008 10:37 AM

Marc, why are you a hater?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 4, 2008 3:52 PM

"If one were to, lets say, auction the land the city would get the money from the land and then put the money to good use before buying new land for a new school in 20 years, is that not a proper use of public property?"

Because the value of land in the city core has outstripped most other investments (at least "safe" investments that are generally available to the public). And it's very likely to continue in this way, at least in the long-term. So, even if DC did as you suggest, we'd potentially (I think very likely) be stuck buying back land that cost much more than the principle+accrued interest from today's auction- assuming such hadn't been spent in the intervening years on some other emergency du jour.

In the past, btw, and especially following the WWII population boom, we paid dearly for some of the land that we've recently looked at disposing of. Even when such was acquired through eminent domain, which would not be politically possible today.

Posted by: Downtown Rez | February 4, 2008 11:03 PM

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