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Government and People
January 16, 2009
Dear Councilmembers Cheh and Brown:
We are writing to point out a number of misrepresentations made by Deputy Mayor Neil Albert in his January 12th letter regarding the proposed public-private partnership involving the Tenley-Friendship Library and Bernard T. Janney Elementary School. As you both know, we have been actively engaged in work related to this project for the past 20 months and, in the course of our efforts, have met repeatedly with community members, developers, and government officials.
First and foremost, we want you to realize that there have been no serious re-design efforts on LCOR’s part over the past six months. In fact, whenever community stakeholders point out a problem with LCOR’s plans, the response has been to manipulate the data and/or images rather than to try to solve the problem. So, for example, we’re still seeing a soccer field where one goal would be somewhere between 9 and 12 feet higher than the other, as well as a driveway on Wisconsin Avenue that will never make it through the PUD process, given the volume of traffic associated with the 200+ car garage it serves. In short, LCOR, with DMPED’s aid and encouragement, is deliberately presenting unrealistic scenarios in an attempt to sell the project to the Council and the community. Neither DMPED nor LCOR seems to have any interest in making this a better project – they just want to seal this deal, secure in the knowledge that, once they have a deal, all of these problems will be someone else’s responsibility.
It’s ironic to hear DM Albert “hope that the members of the community will engage constructively” when his office has ignored every constructive suggestion the community has made throughout this process. The wisdom of some of those suggestions – e.g. to include community/school representatives on the selection panel; to do ed specs for the Janney campus and a concept plan showing how all of the required educational facilities for an elementary school of 550 can be provided onsite before making any decision about whether/how much/what land should be devoted to private use – has already been vindicated. Other suggestions – such as ANC’s request that the RFP require the private partner to come to the table with financing in hand – anticipate (and would have helped avert) problems likely to emerge in the near future if this project moves forward.
Secondly, we want to point out that DM Albert’s claims about the advantages of this project are largely specious. The statement that “preliminary estimates show that DC Public Library will save approximately half of its construction budget under this mixed-use scenario” (or 5 million dollars) flatly contradicts LCOR’s estimate in September of 2008 that the library could save about $800,000 in construction costs as a result of mixed-use. Even that figure was an overestimation because LCOR acknowledged that it hadn’t offset the savings by taking into account increased costs associated with redesign and construction delays. Given that the private/profit-making component of the project may have gotten slightly smaller since September, it seems unlikely that the construction cost savings for the library could have more than sextupled since then.
Even less persuasive, is DMPED’s claim that LCOR’s proposal will provide a means for moving Janney up in DCPS’s modernization queue.In fact, as FOIA’d documents demonstrate, a last-minute political intervention was made to move Janney from its rightful place near the front of DCPS’s facilities modernization line to the tail end. This intervention was apparently designed to accommodate a public-private partnership. As DCPS’s own facilities expert immediately pointed out, relegating Janney to the end of the modernization queue “contradicts the guiding principles” of the Master Facilities Plan.
Janney’s place in DCPS’s facilities queue is not yet fixed. The MFP released last September was a draft and Janney’s position has been controverted both within DCPS and in public testimony before the Council. There is absolutely no reason why Janney cannot be renovated and expanded more quickly without a public-private partnership. The money is available. Post-closures, DCPS desperately needs to expand capacity at high-performing schools that can serves as receivers under NCLB standards. And Janney remains one of DCPS’s most over-crowded campuses with a waiting list of over 150 students.
By contrast, if the PPP moves forward, LCOR’s need for Council approval of the deal, as well as a PUD for the project, necessarily puts Janney’s addition on hold. And without a new addition, the only way to renovate the existing building, would be to send the students off campus.So either the renovations wait for the addition or they wait for swing space to become available. The bottom line is that, at this point, the PPP can only delay Janney’s modernization.
Finally, DMPED still doesn’t seem to understand the facilities issues involved.“No net loss of green space” has never been an appropriate criterion for evaluating this project’s impact on Janney. Given the anticipated expansion in its capacity, as well as the doubling of the amount of its built space, the challenge involved in modernizing Janney will be to enable its outdoor educational facilities to expand in order to keep pace with its indoor facilities.“Green space” per se isn’t what’s at issue.Janney needs programmable outdoor space that can be used to provide the field needed for PE instruction as well as the various age-differentiated hard- and soft-scape play areas mandated by DCPS’s current educational specifications for an elementary school campus of 550 students.
While a mixed-use project at this site may have appeared promising in theory, a year’s worth of attempts to translate that theory into practice have not borne fruit.Three different development teams, each of whom has had the opportunity to present revised or alternative designs, have tackled this project.We’ve seen lots of site plans over the past year, but no one has been able come up with a concrete proposal that has garnered the support of even one local stakeholder group.In fact, at this point, a strong consensus has emerged that our community will be better-served by devoting all of the publicly-owned land at the Wisconsin and Albemarle site to school and library use and entrusting these two construction projects to DCPL and OPEFM rather than involving a private developer. ANC 3E, the Janney SIT, the Friends of the Tenley-Friendship Library, as well as a number of other civic associations and neighboring property-owners have all espoused this position.
And it’s not just the community that has reached this conclusion. The Library’s Board of Trustees announced at its November 19th meeting (and apparently affirmed earlier this week, after seeing DM Albert’s letter) that it has instructed Ginnie Cooper to move forward with the already-funded and designed standalone reconstruction of the Tenley-Friendship branch. And the Janney design and construction project itself has already been handed back to DCPS. LCOR isn’t building anything for the school at this point – it’s just delaying the school’s modernization (by first stalling and then extending construction at the library site) and depriving Janney of a part of its campus.
Frankly, LCOR and DMPED seem to be the only parties that want this deal – yet six months into negotiations, even they do not seem to have managed to reach agreement on something as basic as a term sheet. As DMPED’s website indicates, no such agreement had been reached as of December 31, 2008.
The bottom line is that, after two years of work on this project, DMPED has no agency buy-in and no community support. That’s because Neil Albert’s office seems inclined to get this deal “by any means necessary” – including sacrificing public facilities needs to subsidize private development. In a tight credit market, even if Albert ultimately offers LCOR a deal so enticing that it signs on the dotted line, there’s no guarantee that LCOR will have the financing to move forward once it clears the political and regulatory hurdles that the project still faces (in part because DMPED failed to seek a timely decision regarding whether the public land in question was actually surplus). By contrast, DCPL has both construction financing and necessary design approvals in hand.
It has become increasingly clear that continued negotiations over a public-private partnership at this site are setting us back rather than moving us forward toward the broadly-shared goals of providing improved public school facilities and reinvigorating the dead space created by the premature closing of our branch library. Already, our library’s reconstruction has been delayed an additional 6 months by these discussions. And that’s after a delay which has already extended four years. Each of the other four neighborhood libraries shuttered at the end of 2004 broke ground last December.There’s a big hole where our library used to be – and while other CM’s are cutting ribbons in 2010, we’ll be lucky if ground has been broken on this project before the next election cycle is over.
It is time for the Council to step in and pull the plug on this project. Apparently the opposition of individual Councilmembers to LCOR’s proposal has not deterred DM Albert from moving forward with it. The Council as a whole needs to step in and reassert its role as a co-equal branch and a custodian of public land. Your colleagues will follow your lead on this matter – as Ward CM, as Committee Chairs, and as early proponents of exploring a mixed-use project at this site, it is up to you to let them know that DMPED’s efforts have failed and that, conversely, DCPL and OPEFM seem ready, willing, and able to rebuild our library and modernize our school.
Sue Hemberger, Anne Sullivan, Daniel Carozza, and Amy McVey
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