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Here's why D.C. is confident its Franklin School pick can pull it off

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Washington Business Journal by Karen Goff

The winning bid for the redevelopment of D.C.’s Franklin School came from the right combination of up-front money and a developer with knowledge of historic buildings, District officials said.

“One of the factors of selecting this project was the financial viability,” said Joaquin McPeek, spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. “Under the previous plan, there would have had to have been significant fundraising to pay for the building. We wanted to make sure the space would be paid for. The District will not pay for any of it."

Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner announced Wednesday the selection of Bethesda philanthropist Ann Friedman and Dantes Partners to redevelop the landmarked building at 13th and K Streets NW into Planet Word, an interactive language arts museum and education center.

The redevelopment of Franklin School, built in 1836, has had many stops and starts going back at least 13 years. Most recently, prior to Planet Word, was a bid by the Institute for Contemporary Art to convert the school building into a museum, an offer backed by then-Mayor Vincent Gray in 2014 but canceled by Mayor Muriel Bowser in early 2015. The Bowser administration cited concerns about the fundraising by art collector Dani Levinas.

This time, the District is confident that Friedman, wife of journalist and author Thomas Friedman and heir to a shopping mall fortune, can deliver. Friedman said she will pay the estimated $20 million it will cost just to restore the building, which, because of its historic landmark status, is severely limited in what can be altered. Scroll through the gallery to see the building's condition.

The funding of the museum — which will not charge for entry — itself may cost another $30 million. But Friedman, a former language arts teacher, has a powerful advisory board working with her. Among the advisers: playwright Anne Deavere Smith; New York Times crossword puzzle creator Will Shortz; singer-songwriter Paul Simon; and a host of educators. Board members include Thomas Friedman; Forest City Washington President Deborah Ratner Salzberg; and Ann Doerr, the chair of online education company Kahn Academy.

Friedman could not be reached for comment. The Friedmans have a family foundation that had assets of $17 million and gave away $1.7 million in grants in 2014, the latest year complete 990 forms were available. Ann Friedman's father, Matthew Bucksbaum of General Growth Properties, ranked 105th on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans in 2007 with a net worth of $3.3 billion. He died in 2013.

Dantes Partners, headed by Buwa Binitie, a Washington Business Journal Minority Business Leader honoree in 2015, has mainly focused on affordable residential projects — teaming with Roadside Development, for example, on affordable units at City Market at O in Shaw and with Delta Housing Corp. for 150 units at 1400 Florida Ave NE. He also has led Dantes in securing more than $300 million in public and private financing over the last several years.

Binitie has close ties to Bowser. In 2015, he contributed $10,000 to the mayor’s now-shuttered FreshPAC, was nominated by the mayor to serve on the Housing Finance Agency board, and joined Bowser on a November 2015 mission to China.

McPeek said Binitie’s work-in-progress at the historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA at Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW gives the city confidence he can deliver on Franklin, which needs major work. Dantes Partners originally submitted a proposal, separate from Friedman, envisioning commercial office space at the school.

“I was intrigued by the project,” Binitie told the WBJ about pairing with Friedman. “I was excited by it, and I feel we can make it work.”

The Friedman-Dantes proposal was selected over entries from Aria Development Group and Thoron Capital. Commercial real estate data firm CoStar Group Inc. initially submitted a proposal for a $35 million innovation hub, but later withdrew from consideration and developed the hub in Atlanta. Thoron's plan to team with Georgetown University to turn the building into a music and performing arts center gained favor with residents.

The deal, including a 99-year lease, must be approved by D.C. Council, which will consider it in the fall, McPeek said. The museum could open in 2019 if the approvals and development go as planned.