- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

The Franklin School at 13th and K streets NW looks like a dump. But to developer Adam Bernstein, it's the kind of structure that could make for a great development.

"It's a fabulous structure and an unbelievable location and beautiful architecture," said the president of Bernstein Cos., which in 1998 submitted a $3.1 million bid for the site, which was abandoned about a decade ago. "You would think there was more value for the District to dispose of it."

Franklin is one of several dozen schools in the District that sit vacant, the victims of an unfinished D.C. Public Schools plan to sell them. The school system hasn't aggressively sold or disposed of schools since late 1998, critics say.

Sales of the properties could raise millions of dollars for the District, restore dilapidated buildings, create construction jobs and return properties to property-tax rolls, real estate officials say.

"They left $25 million on the table, plus a couple million a year in taxes just on three schools Franklin, Stevens and Gale," said John Lienhard of the real estate firm Rubicon Partners. Mr. Lienhard had been involved earlier in school real estate transactions and still monitors the properties.

To make up for the school system's failure to sell the properties, about 45 unused schools were transferred to the D.C. economic development office last month.

But even though real estate officials approve of the transfer, observers are not sure if economic-development officials will be more effective in disposing of properties that have been entangled in a feud with charter schools, neighborhoods and historic preservationists.

"We're trying to put together a plan now. It's too early for me to tell," said Eric Price, deputy mayor for economic development.

While officials who report to Mayor Anthony A. Williams legally control the properties, they still are trying to take control of them operationally.

The District first has to figure out how to manage the properties, said Harold Nelson, interim head of the Office of Property Management, which is overseeing the school properties. Then it has to decide which ones to sell, which to lease and which to save. Another problem is that some properties aren't zoned.

D.C. Public Schools officials said they should be conservative about selling properties that may be needed again.

"Families and children are moving back into the District," said Brenda Dunson, assistant to outgoing schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

But even school officials say they don't have a firm idea of how many schools need to be saved. Some properties may be needed for rental income, said Gerald Cooke, director of D.C. Public Schools real estate. Even deciding how many surplus properties to keep for school use and how many to sell for commercial use is complicated.

"I'd look at it on a site-by-site basis," he said.

Charter school advocates say the buildings were kept from sale in order to keep them away from charter schools.

"We think [D.C. Public Schools] did everything it could not to put these buildings on the market," said Robert Kane, the director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school group.

"We believe the mayor's people will be fair-minded and give access to what we're entitled."

Mr. Cooke denied the charge.

"There has been absolutely no evidence of that. We have reached out to charter schools. We have never said 'no,' " he said.

Another group interested in the survival of the schools are nearby residents, who often lay claim to neighborhood schools. The Ivy City Patriots, a resident group in the Northeast neighborhood, and Bethesda Baptist Church, a local church, have teamed up to save the Crummel school building near the corner of Kendall and Gallaudet streets NE.

They want to save the building's exterior and use the property for a recreation center, which the neighborhood lacks, said Dorothia Austin, president of the Ivy City Patriots.

The school board is considering two developers' bids for the site.

Some properties, including the Franklin and the Stevens schools, are suspended for any use by historic status, which can require additional cost for restoration work and limit development potential.

But even if school sites cannot be developed, buyers can make extra money from some of them by selling transferable development rights where they are allowed, said one broker familiar with D.C. Public Schools. The "TDRs" let development potential on one site be used elsewhere, according to D.C. rules that define the "receiving" and "sending" zones.

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