Plan to create art museum at historic Franklin School nixed by new DC mayor's administration


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WASHINGTON — Mayor Muriel Bowser has canceled plans to redevelop a historic downtown building into an art museum just 13 months after the city selected a developer and team for the project.

The Franklin School building, an architectural gem, has been vacant for years but was most recently used as a homeless shelter. In late 2013, then-Mayor Vincent Gray selected developer EastBanc Inc. and an art collector to create the Institute for Contemporary Expression with a museum space and a restaurant by chef Jose Andres.

Bowser's administration notified the group Monday that it's terminating the plan, citing concerns about nonprofit fee-for-admission museum models in a market with many free attractions. Now the city is seeking new bidders for the site.

Organizers behind the museum project said they were already raising money for the redevelopment and had raised more than $1 million in the last three months of 2014, said Dani Levinas, who was leading the project. Funds to operate the art center would have come primarily from rental fees from the restaurant and event spaces, he said.

"This was a total surprise," Levinas said. "The worst part is they never gave us a chance to sit down and talk."

Mayoral spokesman Joaquin McPeek said there were concerns about the project's financial strength, but he said Bowser remains committed to the arts and creative economy. The new administration turned its attention to the project early for a "top-to-bottom review" to avoid having the prime real estate sit vacant for another four years.

"We recognize this is an important project, and we feel that we have an opportunity to have a project there that is viable," McPeek said.

The building is a National Historic Landmark where telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell once conducted experiments. It was designed by Smithsonian architect Adolf Cluss.

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