Thursday, September 20, 2012

Georgetown Plant Sale: Top Arts Official Urges Open Discussion

Sometime this week, the distinctive 1940s art deco heating plant on the Rock Creek Canal in Georgetown got a listing on the federal government's real estate site, the Washington Post reported Tuesday on its Capital Business blog.  It is slated to be sold in an online auction sometime in November.

West Heating Plant. Photo courtesy GSA web
That historic steam plant - the West Heating Plant - has become the symbol of a government sell-off of thousands of unused government properties, called "federal excess properties", launched in 2010 by the Obama Administration.  In 2011, the 1940s plant at 1051 29th St. NW was added to the list, and in June the GSA briefed Congress on its nationwide efforts at the site.

How much revenue could it bring? Possibly millions. GSA can't comment on the value of "pending disposals," but developers see the site as one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Georgetown.

But some say the sale process is taking place largely behind closed doors, including a top DC arts official. Thomas Luebke, FAIA, is Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), the federal body charged by Congress with protecting properties of historic value in the District.  On September 5th, he wrote a letter to the GSA urging a more open discussion on the West Heating Plant's fate. DCMud obtained a copy of the letter on Wednesday.
Copy of Letter from CFA to GSA, obtained by DCMud

Luebke urges the GSA to hold an open discussion with a wide range of stakeholders about the future of the property.  In his letter, he cites Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to determine the possible negative impacts of an action such as a sale, and what can be done to eliminate or mitigate those.  That process, Luebke writes, normally involves open discussion.

"At this time I have not heard of any plans to proceed with this process [of open, public discussion] and hope that the GSA is committed to pursuing what would be expected for a property of this significance," Luebke writes. "While the sale of the property in the immediate term may yield a high sales price as a redevelopment project [...] it is most valuable in the long term precisely for its particular physical, spatial, and historic characteristics."

The building, the letter highlights, was designed in the Moderne style by local architect William Dewey Foster and is an example of federal government's investment in public infrastructure immediately following World War II.

Luebke, in the letter, urges the GSA to consider a use that would maintain the building's structural authenticity as a "massive masonry box-essentially open on the inside except for metal catwalks and platforms holding equipment."  That structure, he writes, lends itself to myriad cultural uses, with the Tate modern museum in London being an example.

GSA says they're doing the required review.  "GSA is currently engaged in that process," Dan Cruz, deputy press secretary for the GSA told DCMud.

Letter from CFA to GSA on Sale of West Heating Plant
Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park and Ward 2 DC City Councilmember Jack Evans want to see part of the property turned into a park.  "Councilmember Evans, as well as the Georgetown community, continues to support a mixed use development with park land," Andrew Huff, director of communications for Evans, told DCMud on Wednesday.

On Thursday, City Councilmember Jack Evans will be meeting with the DC Office of Planning, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and "leadership from the Georgetown neighborhood" to "continue the discussion" Huff wrote to DCMud.  "It is not a public meeting."


Anonymous said...

Great story, but its Thomas Luebke not "Loebke"

Anonymous said...

The political reality is that GSA is under tremendous pressure, to some degree rightly so, to dispose of surplus federal property. The likely high bidders, for a hotel or condominum use would most likely want to preserve the exterior historic details. Developers will also want to take advantage of available historic preservation tax credits.

Unknown on Sep 24, 2012, 11:46:00 AM said...

Thank you! We have corrected the misspelling.

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