Housing Complex

The Coast Guard-Driven Neighborhood Revival That Wasn’t

Mayor Vince Gray speaks at last summer's ribbon-cutting on the Coast Guard headquarters.

Mayor Vince Gray speaks at last summer's ribbon-cutting on the Coast Guard headquarters.

Last summer, city and federal officials cut the ribbon on the new Coast Guard headquarters on the St. Elizabeths West Campus, between Anacostia and Congress Heights. The city, which is undertaking a companion mixed-use development on the St. Elizabeths East Campus across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, hoped that the infusion of 3,700 Coast Guard employees (and the Department of Homeland Security staff that's expected to follow) would create a new customer base for the struggling surrounding neighborhoods, which would then see a boom in restaurants and other retail.

There were safeguards in place to ensure that Coast Guarders wouldn't just hunker down in their offices and then head back home without setting foot in the neighborhoods. Parking at the West Campus was restricted to one space per four full-time employees to encourage people to take the Metro to Anacostia or Congress Heights. The Coast Guard cafeteria was limited to 260 seats, with the hope that employees would head into the surrounding neighborhoods, or at least across the street to the food trucks and vendors at the Gateway Pavilion on the East Campus, which might become a community gathering spot.

"In planning the DHS complex, and the Coast Guard headquarters in particular, we have taken the steps to help the DHS complex be a part of the revival of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, as federal agencies have done in other areas, such as NoMa and the Capitol Riverfront,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton trumpeted at the ribbon-cutting.

So how's the project going? According to an email from one Coast Guard employee, who asked to remain anonymous, not very well:

I read your article about the new Coast Guard Headquarters published on July 29, and I have to say as an employee at the new building, you were absolutely right to doubt the impact we have on the neighborhood. There just isn't anything around the building that is easily accessible and would have any attractions to people who work here. Yes they have food trucks coming to the Gateway Pavilion every once in a while, but that's about a mile walk just to get there from the main building.

There is a shuttle bus from the Anacostia metro station to the front gate, as well as one from L'Enfant. I'm pretty sure that 90% of the people who metro in spend only as much time on the ground in Anacostia as it takes for them to catch a bus. Additionally, the headquarters building and site itself is situated on a dead end road purposefully built alongside 295. There's just nothing around. No street vendors, no easy access to anything in the neighborhood, absolutely nothing. If Anacostia and Congress Heights transform themselves and become an attraction for the employees here, there might be more interaction between us and our surrounding communities, but having this building here is doing absolutely nothing for them right now, and I don't see any way of changing that on this side of the problem.

Photo via @mayorvincegray

  • John Muller

    Keep following this, Aaron. For years the city has presented a "wish list" to residents in the surrounding areas in the development of the various plans for development of St. Es East. In community meetings various agency officials say, "Tell us what you want. Just tell is..." It doesn't work like that.

    Before Jackie Ward left CM Barry's office she offered at an ANC8A meeting that workers at the USCG were going to be presented with a listing of all the local eateries to patronize. If it could only be so simple...

    Lastly, on a walking tour of St. Es West last fall DC Preservation League officials mentioned there was talk of constructing a "clover leaf" off of 295 which would precipitate workers have absolutely no contact with the neighborhood. I didn't get a chance to follow this. I wonder if that is still being discussed and/or in the works.

    Thanks for your coverage of the truth.

  • whiteincongressheights

    I've live in congress heights for 3 years. I moved from another are of SE that was not east of the river.

    I agree with all the above. There is nothing around. There's lots of talk about mixed use development and opportunity, but absolutely nothing being done. And why would anyone build MORE housing in Anacostia or Congress Heights where there is already so much housing and so many vacancies?

    The city really needs to make some smart choices with who and how they develop St. E's east. Retail, Restaurants, businesses would be great. Another grocery store (I'm talking to you, Harris Teeter) would be amazing.

    I still go west of the river or into Md/Va for any retail and shopping needs.

    Congress Heights continues to be no man's land.

    On the plus side - the neighborhood is nice, big houses on big land and super affordable. The people are nice and it's close *enough* to everything.. especially the revamped Navy Yard and soon to be new Wharf area.

  • The heights

    We all saw this coming. The retail options on MLK are unappealing and the Pavillion sits empty. Whats the hold up on the congress heights main streets/great street program?

    Why isn't the East campus moving forward with Phase 1 of the master plan that the DMPED has been touting for 4 years? The 180 acres of St Elizabeths East is just sitting there. When is the Congress Heights metro development happening? What the heck is going on? I thought all of these projects were funded.

  • Kevin

    Give them something worth walking for. This ain't rocket science.

  • http://www.congressheightsontherise.com The Advoc8te

    As a Congress Heights resident and neighborhood blogger I concur with the preceding comments. Aaron and this employee hit the nail on the head. I have been dubious from the start this would be the "revival" it was claimed to be and have wrote extensively about it on my blog.


    I love my neighborhood but the reality is we need a draw and a VERY BIG DRAW at that.

  • John Muller

    The city seems to believe the Pavilion will inevitably one day be a big draw at a price tag of more than $8 million.

    Meanwhile existing business owners in Congress Heights have expressed that the intermittent presence of food trucks on St. Es East is part of the larger "plan." The Big Chair market on lower MLK is still getting its feet underneath it. Vendors there have spoken of the "plan" since the Pavilion opened with the planned but yet to materialize vending space.

  • S.E.

    "Another grocery store (I'm talking to you, Harris Teeter) would be amazing."

    I hear you.......The Giant is a joke. There never more than 4-5 registers open at a time.

  • S.E.

    "Another grocery store (I'm talking to you, Harris Teeter) would be amazing."

    I hear you.......The Giant is a joke. There's never more than 4-5 registers open at a time.

  • http://houseguydc.com Michael

    I, for one, am shocked! Who'd a thunk that plopping a massive federal office building wouldn't revitalize a neighborhood overnight. Just look how vibrant L'Enfant Plaza is after 5pm.

  • On the other hand…

    There is one very clear effect that it's had on the neighborhood:

    The shuttle busses have fouled up traffic on Howard Road. They sit on one of the only two lanes connecting 295 and MLK. Everyone has to merge over to the left to pass the busses idling in the street so that the workers don't have to even look at the neighborhood for more than a few steps.

    There is a huge bus terminal just off the street there, but Coast Guard apparently is afraid to use it. Maybe their employees are too scared of the neighborhood?

  • h st ll

    Another premature article. Did city officials really claim this would be an overnight success (and did you believe them)?

    Congress Heights/St. E's area will be fine. Definitely gonna be about 2 to 3 years though before we see serious commercial movement. But it is coming...

  • CG-Hell

    As someone else who works at the Coast Guard HQ on St. E's, I can tell you that the first part of Ms. Holmes-Norton's plan is working -- there's so little at the site that we'd go anywhere else we could manage in the 30-to-60 minutes we can take for lunch. So if you'd just for *&^^$'s sake put *something* nearby -- on the other side of MLK or on MLK itself -- we'd come. Believe me. We're all so sick of the mediocre food at the CG cafe and that moronic little snack bar, we'd buy whatever you put in front of us. We're not that picky. Vegan would be nice, but we're desperate. Is there a greasy spoon around? Pizza? Soul food? How about bringing the food trucks to the D.C side of the campus every day? You're missing a lot of customers, trust me on this. I'd eat a shoe covered with cheese if it didn't come from this claustrophobic, cloistered corner of Fedworld.

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