If you’re in the market for one of the last large parcels of land available in Georgetown, including an almost 65-year-old art deco building that is approximately ten stories high, and you don’t mind negotiating a range of development hoops and ladders, you’ll want to be at General Services Administration headquarters early tomorrow morning. That’s when the federal government starts the countdown toward the eventual online auction of the West Heating Plant. The property looms at the northeast corner of 29th and K streets, on the edge of Georgetown between the C&O Canal and the Potomac River.
On its website, GSA uses artfully graphic language to describe the onetime two-acre coal field and 110-foot-tall factory that helped to supply steam heat to the State Department, among other government buildings. It was active until about ten years ago, when a switch was made to gas heat. The now-surplus federal real estate is described as a “monumental, buff-colored structure replete with art-deco flourishes,” as “muscular steel and masonry,” and as echoing a pyramid-like composition. It is modeled after the ’30s-era Central Heating Plant near L’Enfant Plaza.
A who’s who of Washington developers, or their representatives, are expected at the 8:30 AM public meeting, which is described as a “presentation for potential bidders.” There will also be tours of the facility. The speakers will include officials of the GSA’s National Capital Region, who are charged with selling the property, and zoning experts from the DC Office of Planning. According to Mafara Hobson, GSA’s spokesperson, the zoning issues are critical. “Once the property is awarded to the bidder,” she says, “the bidder has to work with the city to comply with zoning and environmental regulations.” She adds, “The city wants to have some kind of park component.”
Ever since earlier this year, when word began to spread that the auction would happen, there has been hubbub about the future of the West Heating Plant. What makes it especially appealing to developers, apart from the size, is that the property is not zoned, meaning there are many options for a developer who can get approvals from the city. It will also be sold “as is.” Some developers, obviously, want to convert it into apartments. Others talk of “mixed use.” Topher Mathews, who writes the Georgetown Metropolitan blog, proposed that “a much more interesting use for this building would be a grand new museum. It could be a truly incredible space.” He cited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris as a role model. Philip Kennicott, architecture critic for the Washington Post, is on the same track.
Some nearby residents would like it torn down, but that’s not going to happen, according to GSA, because it is considered historic: It’s in the Georgetown Historic District and is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, anything that happens to the property is subject to review by two of the toughest gatekeepers in town, the Old Georgetown Board and the US Commission of Fine Arts.
Hobson says the online auction is expected to happen in the first week of November. It will be entirely online at the GSA’s auction website. It will be GSA’s first sale of a DC federal property. Since the meeting tomorrow is open to the public, we wondered whether any individual with a dream can play in this game. Hobson says no. “It’s set up where a non-developer with no money cannot go online and bid.”