Housing Complex

Fast Times at Walter Reed

Fast Times at Walter Reed

It’s hard to imagine an event more saturated with sentiment than the closing of a major military power’s flagship hospital for returning soldiers. Sure enough, the ceremony that formally brought an end to Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s mission last week gushed with emotion. Medal-decked dignitaries spoke to the campus’ century of service, flags were rolled up one by one, paratroopers landed, and a sword was handed over to symbolize the transition.

While those in attendance used words like “bittersweet” and “melancholy” to describe the process of shutting down the hospital, it’s an unequivocal win for the District, which will be buying the majority of the 113-acre site and selling off pieces of it to private developers—hopefully breaking even on the whole deal—according to a plan of its own design.

Given the District’s history of allowing development sites to languish for years, Walter Reed’s neighbors are justifiably concerned that its Sept. 15 closing date will leave the whole complex languishing, dormant for an interminable duration. But along with the historic campus and location on two major thoroughfares from downtown D.C. to Silver Spring, Walter Reed’s federal status is in itself a huge advantage for the community around it. Unlike other big projects in the District’s portfolio, like the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, Reservation 13 by RFK Stadium, and Poplar Point in Anacostia, this one has a hard-and-fast timeline required by the Army, and a lot of people watching to make sure the ground doesn’t lie fallow for long.

Roughly, here’s how things will work: Once the boundaries between the District’s land and the State Department’s are officially established on Aug. 12, the District will put together a new plan, get it past the D.C. Council, and submit it to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. After that’s approved, the Army will begin its environmental review, and finally convey the property to the city. Meanwhile, the Office of Planning will recommend zoning for the currently unzoned site, which will have to be okayed by the D.C. Zoning Commission. Finally, any necessary renovation, environmental remediation, and development can get rolling. Optimistically, all those steps will take about a year and a half.

That sounds like a long process. But it’s actually warp speed, in development time. (The Old Convention Center, by contrast, was an empty lot for five years before ground broke on CityCenterDC.) All the while, the District will be talking to retailers—the big name coming out of this year’s retail convention in Las Vegas was the luxury grocery store Wegman’s—and fielding questions from developers who might be interested in bidding on pieces of the pie.

Barring another market crash or massive bungle by the District government, there’s no reason why Walter Reed should keep Takomans, Shepherd Parkers, and Brightwoodians waiting as long as their comrades in other neighborhoods. And this might be one of the only times when a federal installation becomes a benefit to the surrounding community, rather than a blight.

* * *

The fact that the Walter Reed redevelopment will move faster than most District projects doesn’t, of course, mean it’s getting done as early as possible. If the federal government had decided it didn’t want the property back in 2005, when the Base Realignment and Closure process designated Walter Reed for replacement and appointed a local redevelopment authority, the District might already have its plan ready to go. And if the General Services Administration had decided earlier that it didn’t want any of the campus at all, the District wouldn’t have had to backtrack on the plan once it had started.

But the GSA only pulled out in March, leading to a rejiggering of the boundaries and resetting of the federal clock. Fortunately, the District won’t have to start over completely. The parameters for space usage, drawn up after an extensive community input process, will likely be similar; the original plan called for 900,000 square feet of residential space, 90,000 for office space, and 200,000 for retail. The collection of charter schools, homeless services providers, and small-scale medical facilities accepted by the planning committee will probably get to stay if they want, leaving the District with a few more interested parties to choose from for the newly acquired space.

And ultimately, the boundary changes might make the actual development process move faster than it might have otherwise. In the final plan, the District gets all the land facing Georgia Avenue, which is the most commercially valuable piece of the site. It also scored a 1,200-space parking garage underneath the lawn in front of the main hospital building, which is the kind of asset that makes a retailer like Wegman’s a lot more likely to sign a lease. The District’s plan has been to develop the site in stages, with revenue from each part financing development of the next. A high-dollar initial sale would create a lot of momentum.

Before the next round of planning meetings, neighbors are maneuvering to avoid undesirable additions, like a garage that would consolidate 250 buses from two of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority’s existing facilities. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser and Mayor Vince Gray already expressed their strong disapproval of that idea, so WMATA—as well as the residents of Chevy Chase and 16th Street Heights, where the bus barns are currently located—might be out of luck.

The city is also trying to squeeze information out of the State Department, which will be using its portion of the site for new embassies on a campus like the one in Van Ness that houses delegations from a collection of mostly Middle Eastern nations. The level of security will depend on the countries that end up coming there, but diplomatic missions aren’t known for their willingness to welcome the general public.

Finally, some people are still hoping to prevent the Georgia Avenue side from becoming a continuous string of buildings, having become used to a nice grassy setback from the street. “It’s leafy, and we like it, and that’s what people think about when they think about this part of D.C.,” local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Faith Wheeler told me back in March. Wheeler also questions whether more retail can be successful when the existing businesses up and down the corridor have struggled to survive.

That philosophy, though, doesn’t look like the winning one in this game. For one thing, the whole idea of packing housing and offices onto the site—without internal cafeterias, like the hospital has now—is to create the kind of daytime traffic and residential density that businesses need to stay afloat. For another, the campus is replete with historic landscapes that can’t be overbuilt, allowing a whole lot of the grass and trees to stay; 40 acres of the original plan were designated as open space. As far as Shepherd Park Citizens Association president Tim Shuy is concerned, that’s enough.

“You know what, you’re in the city,” says Shuy, who also sits with Wheeler on the committee that oversees the campus’ redevelopment. “The fact that there’s some parkland inside of it is a good thing, to me.”

* * *

So, what does buttoning up a 102-year-old institution with 5,000 employees currently serving 150 inpatients and 430 outpatients patients look like?

Earlier this week, not much—yet. Entering the gigantic main hospital, known simply as Building 2, I had to dodge an amputee whizzing around on a recumbent bicycle. Cardboard boxes had only started to appear in offices, barbers were still giving buzzcuts, and patient care was in full swing, with family members picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy and amputees getting physical therapy in an airy, prosthetic-strewn exercise center. The only evidence of the impending exodus—and eventual demolition—was a little less wax on the otherwise immaculate floors.

But the move has been in process for months now, with returning soldiers and future outpatient appointments already being diverted to facilities at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda. The Army holds shredding events every week for medical documents that don’t need to be kept. Employees that won’t be needed at the new facilities have been briefed on how to get other federal jobs. The artifacts at the National Museum of Health and Medicine are being packed away with giant bales of Styrofoam peanuts, and the parishioners at the memorial chapel have already relocated to the hospital chapel or other churches in the area.

Relocation commences in earnest on the weekend of Aug. 12, when labs will be cleansed of toxic chemicals, and medical equipment loaded on carts and rolled onto trucks on their way either north or south. If the Army decides it doesn’t need something, like refrigerators or flat-screen TVs, it could be made available for whoever might want it when the District takes over, in a kind of massive military yard sale.

“It’s the same thing you would be doing if you were relocating your residence, but on a much bigger scale,” says the Army’s transition coordinator Randal Treiber. It’s also on a much more precise timetable, with each move pegged to the moment Bethesda or Fort Belvoir is ready to receive its future occupant.

Some details are still up in the air: The bust of the long-dead Army physician Walter Reed—known simply as “Wally”—that now rests in front of Delano Hall will need a final resting place. His sword’s already been turned over, but Wally himself may be the last one out.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6928.

  • bc

    The Walter Reed site is an ideal place for a new bus barn. Its location in between Georgia Ave and 16th St means that it is convenient to WMATA bus routes serving northern Washington DC, and the size of the property (especially now that the GSA has turned over its portion of the site to the District) is large enough to accommodate both a new bus barn as well as new residential, commercial and retail development.

    Ward 4 already has a bus garage on 14th St between Decatur and Buchanan streets. This facility is very old and no longer serves the needs of WMATA. Not only would building a new bus garage in Walter Reed be cheaper than renovating the existing northern (and western) bus barns, but freeing up the site would allow the land to be redeveloped. A well designed mixed use project on the 14th St site would bring the city much needed new tax revenue as well providing a substantial increase in the quality of life in the neighborhood.

    In fact, the DC Office of Planning recently completed its 14th Street Corridor Vision Plan and Revitalization Strategy. Again and again, local residents at the initiatives’ public meetings voiced support for moving the bus barn up to Walter Reed and remaking that stretch of 14th St into a vibrant urban node that would become a center of neighborhood life. New services, like a grocery store, pharmacy, new restaurants and cafes, and other small family owned businesses would set up in the area, bringing jobs and amenities that the area needs.

    I am sure there is a way to design a new bus garage in the interior of the Walter Reed site adjacent to State Department land that will not blight the proposed redevelopment of the areas adjacent to Georgia Ave and Aspen St. I am a regular user of the S buses along 16th St and I want them to be well maintained in a facility convenient to their route. This is a win-win situation for Ward 4 and the neighborhoods of Brightwood and 16th Street Heights.

    Building a new bus barn on the Walter Reed property and redeveloping the northern and western bus barns is simply good urban planning and good public policy.

  • DC_Expat

    "Barring another market crash or massive bungle by the District government". Either seems roughly guaranteed, especially the latter.

  • DC Guy

    It isn't just the residents of Crestwood and Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights who lose if a bus barn isn't located at Walter Reed.

    There are currently two aging facilities that need to be either renovated or replaced. By building a new facility at Walter Reed, WMATA will save millions of dollars in renovations now and millions of dollars per year in operation costs. These savings will benefit the system and users region wide.

    Further, as was indicated previously, the District stands to benefit in property tax, sales tax, income tax and other reward by virtue of the development potential in the existing sites.

    There is no reason why the residents of Shepard Park and Murial Bowser should be able to trump the long term benefit of the WMATA system and the District for parochial issues. The fact is, a new garage could be located underground and with modern environmental controls that mitigate any impact on the surrounding community.

    Make it happen.

  • leeindc

    I disagree with the logic of those in favor of moving the bus garages.

    The stated tax revenues can still go to the city with new development at Walter Reed.

    The neighborhood benefits for 14th street or Chevy Chase will go to Shepard Park and Brightwood so that's a wash.

    If the bus barn buildings are to be renovated into new uses, that raises the cost to the new owners. Therefore, they will pay less to WMATA - which means a wash in cost savings from WMATA building new at Walter Reed.

  • Eric

    Continuing the bus barn discussion = letting the tail wag the dog.

  • DC Guy

    Chevy Chase land on top of the Friendship heights metro station can fetch enough to build the new garage in total, and still leave monies in the city or WMATA coffers for other uses. The 14th Street land would be a bonus.

    Further, 14th Street will always be a dead zone for economic development as long as the bus facility takes up the street frontage. At Walter Reed, you can put the bus garage underground and in the middle of the property so the street can be activated along Georgia Avenue.

  • http://www.14uba.org T.A. Uqdah

    The movement of the Northern/Western Division bus barns is not only an economic issue, but an environmental one. The diesel particulate matter (DPM's) at Northern are at dangerous levels as confirmed by a 2002 air quality study. A move to WR, underground, would allow for WMATA to upgrade its fleet to natural gas; something that is currently prohibited -- at least it is at Northern.

    Combining the 2 NW facilities makes even more sense, as the routes they primarily traverse are in the NW quadrants of the city, as well as Montgomery County and the 2 garages currently share -- E buses -- some cross routing.

    An alternative would be to move both facilities out to Blue Plains and have the metropolitan region kick in $1M annually to subsidize non-revenue generating (deadhead) routes from the new SW facility, that was recently constructed after the Half St. garage was forced out for the building of National's Stadium.

    Some of the Western garage buses may not have to be included in these "deadhead" routes because many of them -- the 30 buses -- end in SE Washington, a shorter distance from Blue Plains.

    After comfortably dealing with the environmental concerns, something other cities and municipalities have done or are doing around the world, we can then turn our attention to the economic benefits, which are many.

    Selling, then closing Western, allows for WMATA to generate revenue to build a state-of-the-art underground facility at WR, without assistance from any government entity, federal or local. The development of Western, generates additional tax revenue for the city, whether it's mix-use or residential, it doesn't matter; as a non-profit, WMATA does not pay real property taxes.

    The same could be said for Northern, which has even greater potential, because the facility is larger. So, now, there's a second piece of DC real estate back on the tax rolls. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am actively pursuing the purchase, design, construction, renovation and mix-use development of the Northern facility).

    Logically, a WMATA WR site would also be granted tax exemption, but it's a 2'fer; two come on, 1 goes off; but wait, does it really come off the tax rolls if WMATA moved to WR? Absolutely; but what difference would that make? No portion of WR is currently being taxed anyway. That's what you call a lateral-wash; going from one tax exempt site to another.

    Finally, there's this: CM Bowser and the mayor "pooh-poohing" on the idea doesn't end the debate. It just says they are not presently motivated, politically, to support such a move. I would hardly give much credence to the mayor's comments, as they were made during the call-in portion of a radio program, that was not necessarily the "topic" of discussion; a sort of "ask the mayor" show. As for CM Bowser, she can be persuaded otherwise; either by her constituents outside of Shepherd Park and Takoma or by the regional Metro Board, which I presume makes decisions based on the best interest of WMATA, not what may or may not be politically expedient in the DoC for its lone representative.

    After all this stuff shakes out, let's see if we can't get WCP to do a story on what incredible "good luck" we had in moving the 2 facilities onto the campus of WR.

  • That Guy in DC

    My understanding is that "Wally" will make his way to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. Seems appropriate; we all grow and mature and often move to a new place that reflects where our spirit seems to be. However, I'm not sure if he is taking the bus, a horse, taxi, bike, a friends offer for a ride, or what(?) for the trip.

  • abel joe

    We want Wegmans!!

  • SP Guy

    We're trying to lure stores like Wegmans and we've got Chevy Chase people here trying to dump a bus barn in the middle of this development. Give me some of what you're smoking...this neighborhood is not having it!

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  • Dude Abides

    The Georgia Ave corridor is already struggling. Georgia Ave has a once in a lifetime opportunity to benefit from a well thought out redevelopment plan. Suggesting the consolidation of bus maintenance facilities amounting to an industrial park at Walter Reed is simply asinine and an insult to the people in the community surrounding Walter Reed. Those that would suggest otherwise or to the benefit of WMATA are simply acting out of their own self serving interests.

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