Agreement Clears Way for Ellington School Project

Photo by Brian Kapur/The Current
Mayor Vincent Gray participated in Friday’s signing ceremony with city, school and community leaders..
Mayor Vincent Gray participated in Friday’s signing ceremony with city, school and community leaders..

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

An $82 million renovation of the acclaimed Duke Ellington School of the Arts is now set to launch, after various partners signed off on a community agreement last week.

The agreement includes a vast reduction of uses for a rooftop “Skyview Terrace” that designers originally envisioned as an outdoor performance space with room for 800. In response to various community concerns, the revised concept allows for mainly classroom uses and an approximately 45-person capacity.

Friday’s signing event, which drew Mayor Vincent Gray and other city officials, was a final step to allow the massive project to proceed. By fall 2016, the now-vacant arts school at 3500 R St. will be approximately 107,000 square feet larger, with a new 850-seat theater and an underground parking lot, among other new features and performance spaces.

“We have been able to work to find what I think is an extraordinary solution,” Mayor Gray said of the community agreement, which he likened to the campus plan setting terms for the growth of Georgetown University.

The Ellington agreement lays out various restrictions for the new outdoor rooftop terrace, prohibiting its use for rentals, fundraising, performances, assemblies or receptions. One rooftop element, a 1,560-square-foot deck located right above the school’s new theater, will be limited instead to “classroom-size teaching activities” for up to 45 students and three teachers.

Hours of use for the outdoor deck will align roughly with the school-day schedule, with audible sound prohibited beyond Ellington’s property line. The partners to the community agreement will be able to decide case-by-case on activities beyond classroom uses.

The changes come in response to community concerns about noise, crowds and evening use of the Skyview Terrace, under its more dramatic original design. But rather than scrapping the entire rooftop concept, planners chose to decrease the amount of usable space on the deck, in the process expanding green roof elements to a total of 21,686 square feet.

Overall, “the scale is unchanged,” said Brian Hanlon, director of the D.C. Department of General Services, which oversees city buildings. The new design “modified the usable footprint with more green roof and less walkable areas,” he said in an interview after the signing.

Aside from Hanlon and Mayor Gray, signatories on Friday included Ellington board president Charles Barber, school founder and arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and representatives of several homeowner and community groups, such as the Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission.

Barber said the agreement is “not about structure, it’s about a relationship” between the school and the Georgetown/Burleith community.

Neighborhood commissioner Ed Solomon described that relationship as “very close … it’s like family.”

The first steps of Ellington’s renovation have already begun, with stabilization work started on the building’s interior and a construction fence built around the school’s perimeter. Next up will be demolition work and abatement of hazardous materials, according to Darrell Pressley, spokesperson for the Department of General Services.

For this school year, displaced Ellington students will occupy two closed school buildings in the Columbia Heights/U Street area: the former Meyer Elementary and Garnet-Patterson Middle School. They also have a new head of school for the first time in nine years. John Payne, the former director of student affairs at Ellington, replaces former head Rory Pullens.

The renovation will allow for a projected 10 percent growth for the 541-student magnet school, according to the Department of General Services. The agency is undertaking the renovation along with a joint venture of cox graae + spack architects and Lance Bailey & Associates.

According to Pressley, one final project approval is “pending” from the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation. Officials at Friday’s ceremony said the community agreement was the last detail holding up that approval.

Ellington has occupied the Classical Revival building at 35th and R streets in Burleith since 1974. The school building, originally Western High School, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

This article appears in the Aug. 6 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.