GDS Finalizes Plan to Buy Metro Chiller Plant Property for Future Development

The WMATA Metro cooling plant whose land GDS plans to purchase. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu.

GDS is nearing a deal to purchase the parcel of land at the corner of Ellicott and 42nd Street, the site of a Metro chiller plant. Among the possible uses for the plot are room for the Civic Lab, office space and faculty housing, senior GDS administrators told the Bit.   

The small, nondescript structure currently occupying the quarter-acre of land, operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency (WMATA), cools the stretch of the Metro’s Red Line from Tenleytown to Friendship Heights. Head of School Russell Shaw announced GDS’ plans to acquire the property on Nov. 16 at a virtual meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 3E, a local advisory council that considers zoning, among other things.

Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Houser, who also attended the ANC meeting, explained in an interview that the school is in the final stages of purchasing the property from WMATA. “We hope to wrap up this calendar year,” he said. But Houser added that the school won’t begin development immediately. “We’re under really no pressure to complete an actual construction at any specific date,” he said.

When asked the property’s price, Shaw said, “I don’t know of the exact number off the top of my head. I don’t know if it’s public.”

Before presenting plans to the ANC, GDS commissioned an architecture firm to conduct a massing study, a basic exploration of what buildings the school could construct on the plot in accordance with zoning regulations. Houser said the findings helped administrators “understand what the value of owning that parcel could potentially be to the school for generations to come.”

According to Houser, the property will likely be used by the Civic Lab, an initiative the school established last school year in an effort to train students in civic engagement. “Although it’s just beginning, there’s a good possibility that it will at one point need or want an office,” Houser said, noting that the Civic Lab’s goal of opening its programs to non-GDS students would warrant a separate building. 

Another possibility for the property is to develop affordable faculty housing. “It’s expensive to live in this area,” Shaw told the Bit.

Jonathan Bender, the chair of ANC 3E and the representative of GDS’ district, said that housing could serve GDS’ “private needs, to attract and retain quality faculty, but at the same time it would be serving the broader public need for affordable housing.”

Regardless of the path GDS decides to take for the development of the plot, the Metro cooling units will remain in use alongside any buildings the school constructs. Although administrators have not identified precisely how they might fit the plant into a future development, Houser said, “the cooling units must remain on the property somewhere.”

The announcement of the new project came less than two years after GDS finished constructing the lower/middle school. Shaw said that, unlike private schools in the suburbs, “GDS is very intentionally an urban school.” He added, “Land contiguous to the school can make a difference to the ability to add programs, to do more for kids.”

Bender has heard proposals to develop the WMATA plant parcel in the past. In 2013, Safeway was interested in acquiring the same property to expand its location on Davenport Street. “My sense was that that really didn’t go anywhere,” Bender said. “WMATA at that point was not really prepared to sell it.” Instead, GDS bought the Safeway property to build the lower/middle school and is now close to owning the WMATA plant, too.

But the school will not begin developing the property right away. “I don’t imagine anything will happen in the next few years,” Shaw said. GDS’ future plans will be contingent on zoning regulations and whether the school can raise enough money for a building project. 

Bender said that, depending on GDS’ specific construction plans, the school may need to seek approval from the ANC and a governmental board.

Bender and the ANC commissioners are hopeful about what the developments may bring to the neighborhood. The Civic Lab is “intriguing, and certainly could be a net benefit to the community,” Bender said, adding, “to the extent that they’re putting affordable housing into the new structure, that’s also very desirable.”

The Nov. 16 ANC meeting began over 40 minutes late, at about 8:10 p.m., because the commissioner who runs the ANC’s Zoom account was absent. A police officer scheduled to give a presentation about local crime did not come either. Shaw gave a presentation updating the ANC on GDS’ traffic situation and the new planned land acquisition, followed by a question-and-answer session. 20 minutes were set aside to discuss GDS, but the part of the meeting focused on the school lasted 45.

One neighborhood resident named Harlan (whose last name was not visible on Zoom) brought up a concern that the Civic Lab building might cause too much traffic in the neighborhood. Shaw thanked the questioner and explained that while some groups might convene there, “what we hope to be able to do with the Civic Lab is partner with other schools and send people out into the schools as opposed to having everybody showing up at GDS.” 

Another constituent, Jonathan Fichter, said at the ANC meeting that having the Civic Lab would be “really neat” and fall “in the bucket of valuable things that could be amenities for the neighborhood.”

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