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In downtown D.C., a long-vacant historic building could pose opportunity

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In its past life, the Webster School in downtown Washington had been many things: a segregated school for White children built in 1882, an “Americanization” school for assimilating immigrants after World War I, a rehabilitation school for pregnant teens in the latter half of the 20th century.

But since the 1980s, the Webster School has been a vacant, boarded-up, red-brick building in the middle of a busy downtown corridor, its double doors stained with age and wear.

Owned by the federal government, Webster has stood as a visible reminder of the impact of vacant or underutilized federal buildings in the District, a problem that local leaders and congressional lawmakers have scrutinized with escalating intensity after the pandemic upended in-person office work. But now, the historic building might get a new lease on life: The federal General Services Administration announced this month that it plans to dispose of the Webster School and another property, the former Homeland Security headquarters complex on Nebraska Avenue, as part of a strategy to downsize its federal footprint, identify unused or underused federal real estate and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

The action from GSA follows months of calls from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for the Biden administration to either make significantly better use of vacant or underused federal buildings or to let the District do something with them — especially as D.C. seeks to revitalize its ailing downtown. As part of D.C.’s forthcoming Downtown Action Plan that Bowser announced this spring, the mayor has broached transforming vacant federal or private office buildings into housing, luring or expanding universities and other means to attract more residents and visitors.

Although that plan is still in the works, D.C. officials said the two federal buildings could pose significant redevelopment opportunities for the city while breathing new life into the Webster, aligning with the downtown reboot.

“It’s really a prime site,” said Gerren Price, president and CEO of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, which is helping to develop the plan. “And my hope is that it becomes just the start to many more of these federal buildings that could become just real beacons of hope and development for downtown.”

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The building is located on H and 10th streets NW near Chinatown — a corridor that has in some ways embodied the challenges downtown D.C. has faced since the pandemic sent workers home and emptied streets. Nearby businesses have closed, Price said. Crime has increased, prompting calls from the BID for a stronger police presence.

A shaken Washington copes with surging violence: ‘This is not normal’

But while the area near Capital One Arena has seen lots of change over the years, one constant has been the boarded-up Webster.

Once owned by the D.C. school system, it went up for sale in the 1990s. One interested buyer wanted to demolish it and turn it into an office tower, prompting a campaign by preservationists to designate the building a local historic landmark in 1999. That victory for the preservationists derailed the office makeover for the school — but the next interested buyer, the Secret Service, whose headquarters is right next door, only complicated the building’s future.

Worried in the aftermath of 9/11 that the vacant building could pose a security threat, the Secret Service wanted to use the building for its own purposes. The GSA took the building through eminent domain in 2003 — but the Secret Service never did anything with the Webster School despite agreeing to seek funding to restore it.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) began applying pressure years later, calling on the GSA to either use or sell the building in 2013 — but having the Secret Service as a neighbor created some development limitations. As the building continued to languish, most recently, Norton introduced legislation in July with Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) that would compel GSA to sell the building.

“We can’t afford to have a valuable property in downtown D.C. vacant,” Norton said, noting she still wants to push her bill forward. “We should be able to generate tax revenue from this building.”

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In a statement Wednesday, the GSA said it had initiated outreach to the District on the Webster School and Nebraska Avenue Complex, and would have more information to share in the coming months on plans to transfer or sell these assets move forward.

The federal agency has increasingly looked for ways to consolidate space and dispose of assets it no longer needs, partly due to the proliferation of remote work: In July, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found “extreme underutilization” among 24 federal agency headquarters, many of which are near the White House and National Mall. The GAO found that 17 of those agency headquarters were filled at 25 percent capacity or less during three separate weeks between January and March this year.

In response, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week approved bills intended to address low office space utilization. One measure, called the Federal Use it or Lose it Leases Act, introduced by Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-N.C.) and Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.), requires the GSA’s tenant agencies to return space if their utilization rates fall below 60 percent for six months over a one-year span. (Norton told The Post in an interview she supported this legislation, but Norton had voted against it by voice vote during the markup. She noted in a later interview she got mixed up.)

In congressional oversight hearings earlier this year, the GSA official then in charge of public buildings said the agency understood “what the District is trying to do with its downtown, and we’re trying to make sure that strategically, our assets can contribute to the vitality of downtown.”

That official, Nina Albert, was just tapped by Bowser to be her deputy mayor of planning and economic development, joining the District government at a critical time as the Downtown Action Plan is in the works.

Albert said officials have not yet discussed plans to consider buying either Webster or the Nebraska Avenue Complex. But she said the city would seek to partner with the federal government to identify potential developers and rezone the properties to make them suitable for new uses.

“What we want to do is partner and introduce the federal government to people who we know might be interested, so that the federal government can see, what could the opportunity be?” Albert said. “Could it be a retailer, could it be a museum? Could it be residential? What does that look like? And show them that there is a market.”

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D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said city government can play a role in the federal efforts to downsize by a having a vision for properties as they are identified, suggesting housing as one possibility for the Webster School.

Plus, now that the GSA is planning to relocate the FBI headquarters to Prince George’s County, Mendelson said the massive J. Edgar Hoover Building downtown could also be a target for private development with a range of possibilities, from commercial to hotel to residential.

“To me, the greatest opportunity is if we take the initiative in developing a vision,” Mendelson said. “My sense is that the feds are still disorganized in how much they want to downsize, when and where, and still sorting it out. And we could bring some leadership to that.”

As for the District’s broader revitalization vision, Albert said the Downtown Action Plan will seek to leverage downtown D.C.’s existing strengths, such as trying to attract businesses that thrive in proximity to the federal government. But while the federal government will always be important to the city core, she said, it doesn’t have to be the only anchor.

“We also have other anchors, and that’s what the plan starts to identify,” she said. “Our universities are incredibly strong, as well as our hospital and medical ecosystem, and we’re exploring how to meet the needs of those industries better.”

Kevin Clinton, chief program officer for the Federal City Council, a nonprofit business and civic group that has also contributed to the action plan, said that telework, high financing costs and concerns about public safety have been the primary contributors to downtown’s uncertain outlook. And while there was optimism earlier this year that in-office mandates from private companies as well as a call to action by the Office of Management and Budget to increase in-person work among federal employees would dampen the impact of telework, he said, the difference so far has felt marginal.

According to data collected by Kastle Systems, which measures traffic at offices through access cards, the percentage of workers who showed up at their offices in downtown D.C. was about 43.7 percent in October, a slight increase compared to October 2022 (41.7 percent) but nowhere near the 98.2 percent in February 2020, a month before the pandemic started. “People are coming back, but they aren’t coming back with a vengeance,” Clinton said.

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Clinton noted he was encouraged by a provision passed by the D.C. Council in the spring to incentivize more office-to-residential conversion projects. Price, the DowntownDC BID president, said he is tracking 23 such projects, four of which are under active construction.

Price added that while return-to-work figures have been less than inspiring, increases in weekend Metro ridership, pedestrian traffic downtown and hotel occupancy are signs that “there’s still a great interest in all of the other things the downtown has to offer outside of spaces to do your job.”

Clinton and Price said recommendations in the Downtown Action Plan will focus on trying to attract people downtown in part by enlivening green spaces — Price pointed to the revamped Franklin Park as a success — and increasing the kinds of amenities and needs that could draw residents, such as grocery stores and educational opportunities.

While the plan was expected to be released this month, Price said they extended the period for public engagement after significant interest during public meetings, and it’s now expected to be released in early 2024.

Mendelson said he would be looking for recommendations to boost public safety in high-trafficked corridors as well as short-term economic strategies that could make a difference in the next year or two, such as pop-up events that could take advantage of vacant retail spaces.

“We’ve learned with the pandemic, we’ve got to have a greater diversity of uses in our downtown,” Mendelson said.

Source: Washington Post

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