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.
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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.”
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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
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