Housing Complex

Will a Hospital and a Whole Foods Market Boost St. Elizabeths?

This old plan for St. Elizabeths will have to make room for a hospital.

This old plan for St. Elizabeths will have to make room for a hospital.

Mayor Vince Gray's press conference this morning on the St. Elizabeths campus brought news of two new projects coming to the site: a hospital and a monthly Whole Foods market. The hospital will replace the troubled, city-owned United Medical Center on Southern Avenue, while the market will offer the high-end grocery chain's fresh products in a neighborhood the store doesn't currently serve.

But what effect will these projects have on the St. Elizabeths East Campus, the former mental hospital where the city is planning a sprawling mixed-use community that it hopes will revitalize the adjacent neighborhoods of Congress Heights and Anacostia? The hospital could be a boon to Ward 8—it'd be more centrally located, with better public-transit access, and it would hopefully perform better than the aging UMC—but Gray also thinks it'll spur the development of the surrounding site.

"It would further catalyze economic development on the St. Elizabeths campus," Gray says in a press release, "serving as yet another focus to attract subsidiary offices, dining, and retail options to service the thousands of employees and visitors for the new hospital."

This can be interpreted as a statement either of extreme optimism or extreme pessimism: optimism in thinking that a hospital can attract all those restaurants and shops; pessimism in thinking that it'll take a hospital to bring these amenities to the site. The city has kicked off the development of St. Elizabeths with a fancy "Gateway Pavilion" and a hunt for an academic anchor, which drew 12 interested colleges and universities. Microsoft and other firms are likely to form a vibrant technology core on the campus. The city's pitching an attractive, Metro-adjacent site with lovely old buildings, where it hopes to have a wide array of housing and offices and retailers. Is a hospital needed to make this happen? Or will it—with the space it takes away from pedestrian-friendly uses, with parking lots and ambulance sirens—hinder the development of the site?

Meanwhile, the Whole Foods market: Gray says it'll offer "reasonable" prices, but that's not exactly what store executives told the Washington Post. The market, the Post reports, will offer fresh food at the same prices as in its stores in well-heeled Logan Circle, Foggy Bottom, and Tenleytown. Remember that a previous organic market east of the Anacostia River failed, due partly to the perception of higher prices (even if the prices there were lower than at the store's locations in wealthier parts of town), and was reborn as a conventional grocery store. Will residents of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C. shell out for Whole Foods prices at St. Elizabeths? Moreover, the market will appear just once a month at the Gateway Pavilion, meaning that it's unlikely to become a part of anyone's regular shopping routine.

There's little doubt that these two developments will be beneficial to many people in the neighborhood. But whether they provide more of a boost to St. Elizabeths and the surrounding community than, say, the presence of the Coast Guard across the street remains to be seen.

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