City may drop Ivymount from Stevens School project

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The historic Stevens School is slated for renovations as part of Akridge's redevelopment of its former playground. (Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

The long-gestating Stevens School rehabilitation and development project in the West End remains in turmoil, as the special-needs education program Ivymount is now unsure whether the city will continue to fund its involvement.

Three developers, led by Akridge, have been working since 2012 on plans to renovate the three-story Stevens School building at 1050 21st St. NW for use by the Ivymount School, a Rockville-based nonprofit that plans to serve around 50 students with autism. The project also includes construction of a 10-story office and retail building on the property’s open space and at the adjacent former headquarters of the Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW.

But the school portion of that project might be in jeopardy, officials from Ivymount and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education said during a meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) last Wednesday. While Ivymount already operates within existing public school facilities, education officials have hesitated to fund an entirely new program.

“We don’t know if the city wants us in the way it was planning,” Ivymount board of directors member Rick Gersten said at the meeting. “We know the city wants Ivymount, but … there is no funding to have Ivymount operating in that school.”

The school system has made “no official decision” on Ivymount’s fate in the Stevens School project, D.C. Public Schools spokesperson Janae Hinson told The Current on Tuesday. In a statement, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spokesperson Kevin Harris wrote that city agencies are working “to review the educational needs in the District and determine the best use for the historic Stevens School.”

Akridge hasn’t received any requests from city agencies to change the project as a result of indecision over Ivymount, the developer’s vice president of development David Toney told The Current. “Right now all we have are the plans that we’ve developed for some time for Ivymount,” he said.

At last week’s meeting, ANC 2A voted unanimously to call on the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and D.C. Public Schools to fully fund the 50-seat program, including increases reflecting adjustments for inflation. The commission’s resolution also calls for the city to fund a 25-seat interim program that would take place while Ivymount finalizes its arrangements at Stevens, as had been laid out in the city’s original agreement.

Ivymount’s CEO Janet Wintrol said at the meeting that the original projected cost of the program per student was $50,000, but inflation and other factors have now boosted that to as much as $66,000. The school, which had no prior plans to expand its real estate, originally signed on with the understanding that it would not burden the city’s finances, Wintrol said.

Despite several letters of intent and written commitments over the years, the city only received budget estimates for the education component in January, according to Ahnna Smith, chief of staff to Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles. “In terms of the volume of students that would be receiving particular services, the nature of the partnership has changed,” Smith said at the meeting.

The Thaddeus Stevens School was the oldest public school in the city until it was shut down in 2008. A 2009 iteration of the plan for the site, put forward by Mayor Adrian Fenty, would have added an apartment building and restaurant space to the site. Neighbors protested, and that plan was nixed.

Then, in 2012, Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration reopened the site for bids, each of which would have paired a commercial development with an education component in the old school. The concept of an Akridge office project with Ivymount in Stevens School won out. Numerous delays have required several D.C. Council reauthorizations of the mayor’s authority to dispose of the city-owned land — most recently in November, when the council extended the disposition deadline until June 2017.

The project comes at a time of transition for D.C. Public Schools, with the recent arrival of Antwan Wilson, the agency’s new chancellor. Smith said Wilson is still figuring out his vision for the school system, and as a result, prospects for Ivymount are up in the air. Wintrol indicated that she’s open to backing out of the project or pursuing other arrangements with the city — but she needs clarity.

“Our partners that started with us are all gone. Now we’re kind of left here,” Wintrol said. “This is what we intended to do. If we aren’t needed and the partnership isn’t needed, then so be it.”

ANC 2A members took a more aggressive stance, blasting the city for appearing to renege on its promise. Commissioner Florence Harmon said she believes that many of the city’s students could benefit from Ivymount’s presence.

“You don’t have the luxury of doing a current analysis of a program that it committed to five years ago and saying, ‘You know what, this doesn’t look like a good idea,’” commissioner William Kennedy Smith told Ahnna Smith. “There’s been too much capital put in by too many people at this juncture for you suddenly to say, ‘It just doesn’t look right to us.’”

Meanwhile, the office portion of the project has been on hold due to a temporary fire station located on the property. Engine Co. 1 is due to move to its permanent home in a new building at 23rd and M streets NW early next month, according to Joaquin McPeek, spokesperson for the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development. At that point, the temporary fire station will be dismantled and the Humane Society building will be demolished. Akridge will begin construction on its new building by early next year, according to Toney.

Groundbreaking on the office project was originally anticipated in 2013, but the mixed-use development that includes the new fire station faced a legal battle and other delays, forcing the continued use of the Stevens property.