Whittle’s Lesson on Local Power

I remember 2001. We wanted to buy a building on Commonwealth Avenue, near Boston University, and renovate it into a school.

Bob said –

“We have to work with the City on zoning. It will be tough, but it can get done.”

I said –

“State law says schools have automatic zoning. Why do we need the City’s okay?”

Bob said –


Bob was right.

I thought of that today when I read in the Washington Post about Whittle School’s new building in DC.

The team racing to launch a school targeting the high end of the private education market in the District and China hit surprising snags in recent days on its Northwest Washington construction site in a futuristic building.

First, Whittle School & Studios faced questions about how to shield 75 children from construction noise, fumes and debris in a day-care center inside the complex at 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Then, a D.C. inspector ordered a halt to construction because the project appeared to lack city approval for demolition. An orange stop-work notice was posted on the front door Thursday morning: “NO Demo Permit.”

The unexpected challenges involving the day-care center and D.C. government posed a complication for the Whittle School as it prepares to open in September in what was once known as the Intelsat building. A sister campus is slated to open at the same time in Shenzhen, China.

How did this come about?

Regarding the stop-work order, Whittle said the $187 million project has all the approvals required under federal law. He says it does not need a city building permit. The structure is on land the federal government owns and oversees under a 1968 law related to development of foreign embassies.

“We are completely in compliance in every way with our project and our construction,” Whittle said. “We’re preparing a document for all parties that demonstrates that. And we’re confident that everyone will shortly agree.”

Among the evidence he cited for his position, Whittle pointed to a September 2017 letter from the State Department that affirms planned uses of the building.

Asked about that letter, a State Department official wrote in an email Wednesday: “The Department’s position is this renovation project is subject to the laws of the District of Columbia. The Department refers you to the District of Columbia government for a determination of whether this project requires a District building permit.”

The lesson I learned in Boston, I would later re-learn in Kenya, and then Liberia, and observe in China….and now full circle to see in DC.

Even when you have permission from High Up, you better get approval from The Locals.

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