Monday, November 08, 2010

History, Secrecy, and Preservation in Downtown DC

Call it delicious irony. The U.S. Secret Service, the organization that has seemingly unchallengeable power to take over sites - land, buildings, streets - that it feels it needs to protect the POTUS, are finding it difficult to take over a single building for office space in downtown Washington DC. The building - the historic Webster School - has remained empty for a decade while the agency has been unable to afford renovation, despite its enormous budget and long term lease of the property.

DC residents boxed out of the botched 2009 presidential inauguration and suffering from an ever widening security perimeter around the President may be forgiven a bit of spite toward the enigmatic agency (not that we aren't happy idling in our car for 30 minutes in advance of a Vice Presidential motorcade, and don't even get us started on the Salahi debacle). But the Service says "financial constraints" prevent it from renovating the skeletal eyesore located across the street from the Old Convention Center site and has no plans in the works for the darkened building.

The school, built in 1882, was used to educate naturalized citizens and by DCPS for many years, but saw its last use in the '90s. The National Treasury Employees Union bought the building for $2m and sought to demolish it (claiming special merit for its needs) to make way for a new headquarters, a move thankfully checked by the Historic Preservation Review Board, which then landmarked the building. GSA subsequently exercised eminent domain on behalf of the Secret Service, which hoped to renovate the school as an adjunct facility to its headquarters next door amid rumors of a pending museum for the site. The Service, with an annual budget this year of $1,500,000,000, says it lacks appropriate funding but needs the space for its 7,000 worldwide employees (it won't give the number of employees in DC). "We have plans to make it usable space for Secret Service employees" says Robert Novy, a spokesperson for the Service, dismissing museum theories.

Legally protected from demolition, the building is also being protected from death by natural causes with a minor structural renovation. But with the hole-plugging came exterior scaffolding and plywood sidewalk canopy that has lasted for several years, annoying neighbors, and the Service says it has no immediate intentions, or even designs, to change that until it receives dedicated construction funds. In the interim, the building has been vacant since the Clinton years, a fact that may be noted by an administration that hopes to stanch charges of fiscal profligacy by cutting its inventory of vacant office space, not to mention ax-wielding Republicans that will begin arriving in town over the coming weeks.

So for the time being the corner of 10th and H will remain dark and fenced off, a less-than-inviting streetscape at night, unless the Secret Service can find a way to make money out of a public nuisance. Perhaps they should ask the Salahis.

Washington DC real estate development news


Anonymous said...

Please help me to understand what's so special about the old Webster School building. I've been by it a thousand times and it doesn't appear to have architectural significance (visually, it isn't a unique or particularly handsome building). I've also surfed the Internet seeking historical/cultural significance, but have come up empty there too. Sometimes an old building is just an old building, and not every old building merits "landmark" status (and protection).

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