New Year, New School: Behind the Scenes of Construction

As you enter school on your first day, you may wonder what changed on campus over the summer. You might observe that the school bought new furniture, like the couches they placed along the English hallway. Or, maybe you’ll realize the maintenance staff painted your favorite classroom, like the language room across from the debate office. Most likely, you’ll notice the extraneous noise and clouds of dust because, nearly five years after GDS announced it would unify their two campuses on Davenport Street, construction workers finally broke ground on the project.

The process to begin construction was certainly a lengthy one, but with fair reason: much more goes into the development of a new building than just picking up a hammer and nails. Head of School Russell Shaw detailed the strenuous road to construction, saying he had to consider “overseeing the process of deciding what we want, figuring out who we want to get input from and evaluating how we put [a new campus] there in a way that’s responsible.”

A major part of Shaw’s job is to ensure that every part of the new campus somehow represents the mission of GDS, even for seemingly arbitrary aspects like the new cafeteria. “Is the dining going to be family style? Will students stand in a line? Are there going to be assigned seats or will kids sit wherever they want?” Shaw mused. Even the logistics of food can have cultural implications for the school, he said.

One of the most important—and time-consuming—parts of the process was navigating D.C. law to secure the zoning agreement. According to Shaw, GDS had conversations with neighbors, held meetings with the local Area Neighborhood Commission, and met with the D.C. zoning board before they could receive approval to start building. Then, once the D.C. zoning board granted the school’s wish in November of 2017, the team was able to proceed with the campus unification.

Another essential step to the campus unification project was working with the school’s architects to create a design for the new building. According to Shaw, finalizing a design for the new building that the school was happy with was so important because it becomes difficult and expensive to change the design later on.

“At this point, if we make any changes to the designs, that will cost additional money because we’ll run into change orders,” Shaw explained. “Inevitably, with construction projects, there are always change orders but the goal is to try to minimize those so you can try to stay within your allocated budget.”

Even though construction already started, the team continues to update members of the community on the project to mitigate any concerns.

“We have begun monthly meetings with our neighborhood,” Shaw said. “Once a month we invite neighbors to campus so that they can know exactly what is happening because they are understandably concerned about noise, traffic and dust.”

Beyond Shaw, there is a permanent team of people whose jobs it is to oversee the development of the new campus. Two crucial members of this team are Kristina Lennox, a project manager who acts as a liaison for development, and Jeffrey Houser, the school’s Chief Financial Officer.

Lennox handles the day-to-day operations of the project, which includes working with the external project management group, the architects and the construction general contractor.

“For me, I’m going in between assisting with permits, or getting a design done, or figuring out what our science teachers would like in their new classrooms,” Lennox said.

Operationally, one of the most important pieces of the project was funding the construction. Construction projects are never cheap, and this one is no different. The new building is estimated to cost between $80 and $90 million, according to documents sent out to parents last December.

Houser explained he doesn’t plan to raise tuition to offset building costs, so the financial team had to look to other sources of cash to fund the project. Their most basic method of funding is to take out loans from the bank in the form of debt. While these loans won’t cover all of the costs, the school still plans to take out $60 million in debt.

Another way Houser and team plan to fund the project is to utilize one of their biggest assets: the current Lower-Middle School campus. According to Houser, a different school (which he legally cannot name) ultimately purchased the land for an undisclosed amount. While any developer could have purchased the building, it seems fitting another school purchased the land, allowing the space on MacArthur Boulevard to continue being used for education.

While the school initially intended to use the site of the Marten’s Volvo dealership on 42nd street to build commercial retail space, complicated zoning measures halted the plans.

“The plan for the retail space is currently on hold,” Houser said. “For different reasons, the decision was to separate out the development of that retail space and focus exclusively on the school unification.”

Undoubtedly, the creation of GDS-owned retail space would have helped to offset some of the costs of construction, so keeping that space practically unused comes at a big loss for the school.

The next step towards having lower schoolers on Davenport Street will be demolishing our beloved former grocery store. Houser noted that, before the school can actually tear down the Safeway, the general contractor has to disconnect all utilities that connect the ground and the building. While Houser said he doesn’t definitively know when demolition will occur, “it could be that by the second or third week of September, the building will start coming down.”

In September of 2020, the GDS campus might look different, but the feelings inside the hallways should remain the same. If anything, our sense of community will evolve, as soon every voice in the school will be represented on the same block of Davenport Street.

Visit http://www.gds.org/schoolunification for more updates on the campus unification project.

BY: Zach Blank

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