University to finalize School Without Walls deal ‘any time now’

Following about 10 years of negotiations, GW and the School Without Walls will sign a finalized deal within the next few weeks that solidifies the University’s purchase of the parking lot adjacent to the high school, University officials said.

Louis Katz, GW’s executive vice president and treasurer, said in an interview last week that a finalized deal will be signed “any time now,” and then architects can begin to plan construction for the lot. GW plans to build a 500-bed, apartment-style dormitory in place of the tennis courts and parking lot located next to the high school at 2130 G St. GW already owns the tennis courts.

“It’s still going to take a while, but the next step is the formal signing,” Katz said.

In exchange for the land, the University will pay the city about $12 million – the 122,000-square-foot sale was priced at $93.75 per square foot – that will be used to renovate and modernize the School Without Walls, GW Senior Counsel Charles Barber said.

Barber said it will take an estimated six months for the approval for construction to go through, and two years to construct the dorm.

“We are looking at about four to five years,” Barber said. Katz said GW hopes to have the residence hall completed by fall 2009.

GW and the D.C. Public School system, under the D.C. Board of Education, signed a memorandum of understanding this summer outlining the specifics of the plan, Board of Education officials said. Barber said the D.C. Board of Education and GW’s Board of Trustees are working on setting a time for the deal’s signing ceremony.

Both parties are in the process of selecting architects for their respective projects, and Katz said that both the renovations to the high school and the construction of the dormitory can be done simultaneously. Katz said that the University is working closely with the D.C. Office of Planning to choose an architect for the dorm project.

“There’s enormous support at all levels to make this happen,” Katz said. “It’s good for everyone.”

Barber said that after the architects and designs are chosen, the next step is to file an application to the D.C. Zoning Commission, and it can take from nine months up to a year to review the plan. Other factors could delay the process as well, he said.

“An application was filed by D.C. Preservation League to keep (School Without Walls) as a historic building,” Barber said. “It’s certainly a good idea to save some aspects of the building, but it might limit what they can do with it.”

Because of the historical, preservation and height issues in D.C. in general – no structure can be taller than the Capitol – the average construction project usually takes more time in the District than elsewhere, simply because of the many regulations.

School Without Walls principal Sheila Mills Harris has been unable to be reached for comment since Friday. In an interview in 2004, Harris said her school’s G Street building is in desperate need of repair.

“Lord knows we need a new building … Everyday something goes haywire,” she said. “Everyday there are challenges.”

In 2003, administrators at the high school said it operated at 125 percent capacity and lacks vital facilities, including a gymnasium, cafeteria and science labs.

-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

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