Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Praise of Backus: A UDC Conversion Plan

As with most things in life...change is inevitable. Such is the case with the former neighborhood cornerstone of Bertie Backus Middle School. As part of Mayor Fenty's plan to reconstruct the District's faltering public school system, Backus (and several other schools) was closed in 2008 citing low enrollment as the cause. At one time Backus was a vibrant and successful community centered school. But for the past two years, it has sat silently used only to house DMV equipment on part of the property.
The District of Columbia's Fiscal year bulletin states that it "treats Bertie Backus Middle School as vacant, requiring an annual expenditure of $172,328 to pay for the fixed costs associated with maintaining this building." With the community unsure of the decaying building's future, the District was in the process of drafting legislation to unload most of their unused property. Starting in the spring of 2009, the City began taking bids on the 126,800 square-foot building sitting on 2.91 acres of land. Three official proposals were submitted, ranging from complete site conversion to a new Public Charter School. Of the three, the city council unexpectedly chose the University of the District of Columbia's bid.
UDC's plan is to take the large parcel of land, and it's associated facilities, and convert it into the new central location for their fledgling Community College. The proposal, although in the very early planning stages, cites the properties proximity to a major Metro Station, property size/condition and the other major development plans in the area as deciding factors in selecting Backus. The Community College would no doubt be a state of the art facility allowing district and community residents access to higher education and world class training. This grand vision, however, would not come without it's costs. The Office of Property Management says that "if UDC decides to use this building, it would have to spend approximately $1.7 million on construction in FY 2010 . The FY 2010 budget for UDC allocates $1.9 million for recurring costs and $2.4 million for onetime costs associated with the lease of this property." The financial costs are not the only ones...consider the fact that directly across South Dakota Ave the Cafritz Foundation is preparing to break ground on their massive Art Place at Ft. Totten project. Converting a modest intersection into a cultural, residential and educational hub would undoubtedly require the City to invest millions in infrastructure and transit upgrades. All this construction taking place within one city block could make for an interesting neighborhood dynamic.
While many locals are excited for all the re-imagination of the area and access to never before seen amenities (and most support the plans), the opposition is getting more of the press. The two most outspoken opponents of the plan are former Mayor Marion Barry, and outgoing Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Neil O Albert. Although they both differ in their reasoning (Barry's being school closures and Albert's being budget strains), they have managed to stir the pot enough to get some publicity. As is the case with the Art Place project, the community has mixed emotions about the forced change in it's identity. However, the majority still feel that the creation of a state of the art Community College campus with in walking distance would be invaluable and help inspire local children.
A community on the verge of transition and gentrification will always be one torn between the past and the future. The prospect of access to convenient education is always appealing, but at what cost? No matter what the final decision may be, it is just another sign of the times...and an exciting and promising one at that!

No comments: