In part one of my series on G Street, I discussed the Government Printing Office and the paradoxes that putting light industry in an office district creates for urbanists. In this section, I will discuss the Gales School.
Again, the building in question is a historic red brick sculpture. Again, it doesn’t begin to fill the entire site, leaving room for parking, not reaching height limits and otherwise underutilizing the zoning of the area.
Unlike the GPO, however, the Gales School building is not being used for light industry; nor is it being used for more offices like its next-door neighbor, a building which hosts the National Association of Counties and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Instead, the Gales School building is under renovation to become a major homeless shelter.
Last July, the District approved a land-swap with the Central Union Mission, trading the Gales School property, which had previously been a city-operated shelter, for four properties near the intersection of Georgia and New Hampshire Avenues. The $6.5 million difference in the assessed values of those sites is an interesting story for another day. The important point is that it will be a 125-bed facility in the heart of downtown for a long time to come. The Mission has signed a non-binding agreement with the District to operate this as a shelter for at least forty years. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much of any fight from the neighbors. That won’t last forever, though, particularly with a non-binding agreement.
All the questions that were raised by the Government Printing Office are twice as hard and as contentious with a homeless shelter. Not only does the building take away from the street life, in this case the use will as well. Among those who decry downtown DC’s monoculture of 8-story office buildings, a perfectly preserved school used as a shelter may not be the diversity they were looking for. The discussion shifts from what kind of urbanism to whose urbanism; race and class are instantly brought to the fore. It’s not Tompkins Square Park, but it is precisely the kind of site which will surely serve as the locus for a clear view into the power relations of a prosperous downtown D.C. It is also the kind of site that brings into sharp historical contrast the differences between the downtown of the present and the “inner city” of the past.
What the “best use” of this site is couldn’t be harder to discern. Moreover, knowing very little about the specific needs of D.C.’s homeless population, I couldn’t evaluate any positive claims about the need for a shelter on a particular lot or in a particular neighborhood. Part three of this series, though, will attempt to draw some conclusions about the block more broadly and how it fits into an urbanist D.C.