Heating Plant Auction Set for November

Photo by Bill Petros/Current File Photo
The secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts has expressed concern about the limited public input on the parcel's sale.
The secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts has expressed concern about the limited public input on the parcel's sale.

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

As the U.S. General Services Administration prepares to auction off Georgetown’s West Heating Plant property, the secretary of a federal design review board is questioning whether the process has gotten enough public attention.

“I urge the GSA to engage with the many interested parties in the community to initiate a public discussion about the future of this property — a future that, if handled wisely, may facilitate great public benefit for future generations,” Thomas Luebke of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts wrote to the General Services Administration earlier this month. The letter was published last Wednesday on the DCMud blog.

The two-acre property at 29th and K streets was listed as an excess property in October 2011, and it has served as a key example of the federal government’s initiative to sell off its unused or underused holdings. The General Services Administration intends to hold an online auction for the site in November, and advertises the property as “a landmark with monumental potential.”

In his letter, Luebke urged the agency to consider the benefits of something like a museum — which could artfully use the large open space inside the building rather than fill it in — instead of just standard commercial uses.

“There are many ways it could be redeveloped, and the federal government owes the community a bigger public discussion about the property before it is sold,” Luebke said in an interview. “It’s too significant to just put it up for sale like any other building.”

Luebke stressed, though, that he isn’t pushing for a particular use for the site or saying it shouldn’t be redeveloped. Rather, he said, the building’s unique character merits more attention.

“What I’m looking for is public awareness that might enlarge the field of potential buyers, and also it would help the bidders to understand the possibilities and the potential difficulties with redevelopment,” he said. “It could affect what people think of it, instead of making them guess what they’re going to be able to work with.”

General Services Administration spokesperson William Marshall said the agency has received Luebke’s letter and is reviewing it, but has no further comment.

The agency has hosted public meetings discussing the heating plant site, but the possibilities for its future use remain nebulous. Like most federal properties, the site has no D.C. zoning, and city officials have declined to say what use they would allow on the site. The federal agency, meanwhile, has declined to place covenants on the sale, leaving the matter up to the city.

In addition to Luebke, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans and several community groups have sent requests to the General Services to Administration. Their aim is to convert the open space next to the existing heating plant building into parkland, offering public access to Rock Creek, and to block additional development from taking place there. An Evans spokesperson said the council member hasn’t received a response.

The Fine Arts Commission’s Old Georgetown Board will also weigh in on the design of any proposed exterior alterations at the site, because the Georgetown neighborhood has federal historic controls.

The plant was built in the 1940s to heat federal buildings, but has served in recent years only as a never-needed backup to another facility in Southwest. It’s expected that a developer would reuse the heating plant building rather than seek to demolish it, because the property has historic protections and is taller than any new building that would likely be allowed on the site.

At georgetownheatingplant.com, the General Services Administration pitches Georgetown as a strong market for housing, hotels and office space — all seen as potential new uses for the 110-foot heating plant building.

“Located in Georgetown, one of Washington D.C.’s oldest and most exclusive neighborhoods, the Georgetown Heating Plant presents a rare opportunity to acquire an asset with unparalleled redevelopment potential,” the website states. “Discover the breathtaking views across the Potomac and find out how you can build your monument today.”

This article appears in the Sept. 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.