In 2013, when John O’Connor, OFM, served as one of the chief point persons for the Franciscan friars in negotiations for the sale of Washington Theological Union (WTU), he had mixed feelings about the assignment. On one hand, as chair of WTU’s Provincials Committee – and coming off the experience as the lead for Holy Name Province just years prior in a joint venture deal for the more than quarter-billion-dollar construction of the residential skyscraper on West 31st Street in New York City – he knew the sale of the WTU property, no longer a sustainable entity, was a necessary business decision the Franciscans had made. But as a graduate of WTU, where he received a master of arts in theology, he was also saddened by the shuttering of the institution.
Although WTU was sold 10 years ago to one of D.C.’s largest property owners and most innovative developers with a track record of revitalizing crumbling neighborhoods, those nostalgic feelings about WTU resurfaced when a March 7, 2023 article in BISNOW (a multiplatform digital media company) reported that Douglas Development unveiled its redevelopment plans for the WTU property, including a rendering of a 354-unit multifamily housing development in the Takoma Park neighborhood.
John, a former HNP provincial, circulated the article to the St. Anthony friaries in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Butler, New Jersey, as well as other friaries with large fraternities of resident friars for whom WTU played an important role in their Franciscan formation.
“The friars were grateful that I brought this to their attention. Most friars in our Province did their theology studies and preparation for ordination at WTU, so there was definitely a great deal of reflection and sentiment – a moment of nostalgia for most who recalled the good years they spent there, and the good memories and experiences,” said John.
“But they also expressed sadness when they learned that WTU has already been leveled and the property is being prepped for development. We had the mourning period when it was shut down and sold, so now it’s like experiencing the loss all over again,” added John, who noted that the story of WTU, in some sense, has a happy ending.
“There’s the nostalgic part, feeling bad about the loss. But there are also positive elements. I am encouraged by what the buyer will be doing, now 10 years after the purchase – in particular, making an affordable housing component part of the residential development. That will help many struggling families,” said John, who serves as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Virginia.
John explained that Norman Jemal, managing principal of Douglas Development, is a fascinating businessman with an uncanny ability to look at real estate in major cities that others wouldn’t give a second thought to developing. “He looks at the big picture. He looks at an area and has a vision on how he’s going to bring it back,” said John, noting the example of D.C.’s Chinatown area.
Beyond two-to-three blocks of restaurants, it was undesirable real estate. But after Douglas Development purchased virtually all of the surrounding geography, the area is now booming with retail, condos and rental apartments.
“We were comfortable with selling WTU to Douglas Development because we knew the company’s track record. Jamal was up front about his plans to keep WTU open for a while, leasing the space to educational institutions, but he also said that he was buying surrounding properties and taking everything to the ground so that he could bring back the area. He has done the same thing in Buffalo, New York, which had been languishing for decades,” said John, who tapped into the assistance of the same team of real estate, financial and legal advisers he had used in the joint venture construction of the residential skyscraper in New York to ensure that the Franciscans received fair market value for the WTU property when it was sold 10 years ago.
“WTU was a beautiful building. It had a beautiful chapel and library. But there is comfort in knowing that the property on Laurel Street – and the surrounding area that has been crying out for good, much-needed and quality development, especially in the area of affordable housing – will be developed in a way that will help people in need,” added John.