News & Politics

Countdown Starts for the Eventual Sale of a Huge Piece of Georgetown Real Estate

The General Services Administration hosts a meeting Thursday to discuss the online sale of the old West Heating Plant.

The West Heating Plant. Photograph courtesy of GSA.

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

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.”