Seize the Moment and Purchase the Intelsat/Whittle Building

Councilmember Frumin’s commentary in the DC line, which proposes purchasing the former Intelsat site, is an indisputably ambitious idea. The site, located a block from a Metro stop at 4000 Connecticut Avenue NW, presents a unique opportunity for the city to acquire a massive property with a variety of potential civic uses. Purposes could include an early childhood education center, senior wellness programs, urban agriculture, a central food processing facility, and space for UDC or another university. To achieve this goal, the proposal suggests the possibility of relocating the high school on MacArthur Boulevard to the Intelsat site, offering a more accessible location proximate to public transportation.

The District is about to move into the second phase of the MacArthur High School renovation in the Palisades neighborhood. The MacArthur launch has been an extraordinary success so far, but that very success highlights the challenges of accommodating a proposed program to serve 800 students at its current site. The school is in a difficult-to-reach location, tightly nestled in a residential community on the far western edge of the city with few amenities around it. Before entering this next phase of renovation on MacArthur Boulevard, we should consider whether instead of expanding there, we should instead locate the high school on the Intelsat site. Consider the possibility of the high school next to a university, on the Red Line, surrounded by amenities to serve students, on a campus potentially devoted to lifelong learning.

I recently discussed with Lab’s leadership the possibility of consolidating on the MacArthur site now owned by DC, and they indicated it is an idea worth exploring. If such a deal could be struck, I’ve been told that the sale price plus the avoided capital costs for the second phase of the MacArthur renovation could free up roughly $125 million that could go toward the purchase and renovation of the Intelsat building. This would provide DC an appealing location for its newest public high school largely using dollars already set aside for that purpose in Ward 3.

A high school in the Intelsat building would take up a fraction of the space on that site. As described above, the possibilities for other uses on the site are numerous and exciting. See recent commentary in the DC Line here.

While Councilmember Frumin’s proposal is ambitious and represents a significant departure for the MacArthur High School renovation, it emphasizes the exceptional opportunity the Intelsat/Whittle site presents for the District. Councilmember Frumin encourages serious exploration of these possibilities. Add your name to this petition to call on District leaders to support robust consideration of the Intelsat site.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does Councilmember Frumin’s proposal mean in terms of his support for MacArthur High School?

Councilmember Frumin is committed to the success of a high school that serves the Hardy feeder pattern no matter where it is located.  He has long advocated for the school, championing full funding for a complete and timely modernization of the MacArthur Blvd. facility and sufficient public transportation access. Regardless of where these students are educated, Councilmember Frumin will continue to be a passionate advocate for fully serving them in a modern and well-resourced school environment. Councilmember Frumin’s proposal is not a criticism of MacArthur High School or its leadership. Indeed, the school has been successful to date, and additional room to meet its full planned student capacity will only help it realize its potential.  Intelsat could offer that. It has already been built out with a black box theater, music studio, dance space, green room, podcast studio, makers spaces gym, science labs, cafeteria, kitchen, arts spaces, office spaces and classroom spaces.  There is a natural space for an auxiliary gym and the bones for a small auditorium.  It is across the street from UDC and could have access to its fields, gym, pool and classes.  (See link to pictures)

Does the city have sufficient time to make an informed decision on such a big issue given current modernization plans for the MacArthur Blvd. school? 

The Councilmember’s recent commentary is entitled “Seize the Moment” for a reason. A decision in principle to change course and pursue the Intelsat site for the new high school would need to be made in the next few months. Councilmember Frumin’s unique funding model establishes a tight decision timeline, which has many virtues. It indicates to the seller that, if the city is going to purchase the property, it would happen in this window, which encourages them to be open to the most attractive deal possible with the city. Similarly, if the Lab School is interested in the MacArthur Blvd. site, there is a limited window, and they should offer the most attractive terms possible. The tight timeline can work to focus all parties on pursuing this unique opportunity.

If it becomes clear the city does not intend use the Intelsat site as a new site for the MacArthur High School, we must proceed promptly on the second phase of renovating the MacArthur Blvd. campus.  While the District considers the Intelsat opportunity, preparations for completion of the MacArthur Blvd. school, including developing concept designs for the next phases, should continue. This would allow time for an informed decision, regardless of whether the city pivots to Intelsat or pursues the MacArthur concept plan. Councilmember Frumin’s proposal does not slow progress but provides a menu of options that incentivizes the city to develop the best possible plan for a new high school.

Meanwhile, if the city concluded that it did not want to move MacArthur to the Intelsat site but was willing to consider purchasing Intelsat in the upcoming budget process, there should still be a sense of urgency to explore the possibilities. The Mayor will be formulating her budget in the coming months.  This would be the time to explore the purchase of the Intelsat site — to consider the functions to be served and what the city would be willing to pay.  Again, the message to the seller would be that if it were not willing to offer an attractive price, it could be another year before the city returned to explore the idea in the next budget season.  On all sides, the message would be to seize the moment.

If the city were to pivot to the Intelsat site, when would MacArthur students start attending school there?

The Intelsat site would open to students for the 2025-26 school year. Modest updates to the MacArthur Blvd. site would be made for the 2024-25 school year. In the intervening time, final plans and finishes would be made to the Intelsat site to allow for a seamless transition at the start of the 2025 school year. As described above, the prior tenants made very large investments to create a state-of-the-art school facility (link pictures); it will not be difficult to prepare the site for a comprehensive public high school. Given that a decision to proceed would need to be made promptly, the timeline should allow for at least 18 months to get it ready to welcome students. That is more than enough time.

How can the city afford such an investment given all its other priorities? 

The elegance of the proposal is that it transfers $125 million already budgeted for a Ward 3 high school to another site in Ward 3. That down payment would go a long way towards purchasing and making any necessary improvements to the property,  which would provide the city both a large, already renovated high school and hundreds of thousands of square feet of real estate that can be used for other citywide purposes. The issue is not whether the city afford to do this; the city cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

Will the cost of maintaining, heating, and cooling the building be prohibitive?

The building was outfitted with state-of-the-art new HVAC systems when it was renovated to house an independent school, and its innovative architecture maximizes energy conservation. Maintenance, heating, and cooling expenses would be manageable and could be defrayed through leasing portions of the property to tenants like early childhood education centers.  However, it is also the case that a comprehensive analysis of the economics of operating the building must be a  part of the robust consideration for which Councilmember Frumin is advocating.

How will students get to Intelsat?

The MacArthur High School sits on one edge of the Hardy Middle School feeder boundary, tucked away in an area with limited public transit access. While MacArthur has had a successful launch, constructing a comprehensive high school campus on its limited site and  hard-to-reach location will continue to be a challenge. Intelsat is located on the other edge of the feeder boundary (indeed blocks outside it) in a transit-rich area. Whether or not access will be easier at the MacArthur or Intelsat sites will vary by neighborhood and turn in part on eventual decisions about bus routes.  Considering the various scenarios for access, including through changes to the bus routes, again should be part of the robust analysis Councilmember Frumin seeks.

No matter where the new high school is permanently located, Councilmember Frumin will continue to press WMATA to ensure sufficient public transit service to all parts of the feeder pattern so all students can get to school conveniently and safely. He will also work collaboratively with DCPS to determine other ways the District can directly support transit access during school hours.

Could housing be placed on the site?

The Intelsat site could be used for myriad possibilities; housing could potentially be one option, among others, considered for the portions of the property not used for a high school. The Intelsat building uses a modular design with individual “pods” that allows for multiple complementary uses to exist side by side with appropriate separation. If housing were to be considered, the city would need to be careful to safely separate school facilities from housing but, if done properly, this would make the Intelsat opportunity even more attractive.

How would this proposal impact the school boundary process?

In short, there would be no change. Intelsat is just steps outside the current Hardy Middle School catchment area, and Hardy students would still have matter-of-right access to the new high school.

How can I learn more about this? 

Councilmember Frumin plans to make himself available to speak and answer questions at ANC and other community meetings. Sign up for our newsletter here or watch the listservs for announcements of these events. In the meantime, learn more about his proposal and the Intelsat property.



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