Housing Complex

Will Congress Heights and Anacostia Actually Miss DHS If It Doesn’t Move to St. Elizabeths?

This building, slated to become the new headquarters for DHS administrators, could stay boarded up a while longer.

This building, slated to become the new headquarters for DHS administrators, could stay boarded up a while longer.

The title of the January report from the House Committee on Homeland Security's Republican majority didn't leave much room for doubt on the lawmakers' position. "Reality Check Needed: Rising Costs and Delays in Construction of New DHS Headquarters at St. Elizabeths," it read. And so when another Republican-led House committee issued a report last month on the effort to build new facilities for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the west campus of the former St. Elizabeths mental hospital near Congress Heights, its conclusion wasn't much of a surprise.

The House Appropriations Committee, reports the Washington Post, recommended that the $323 million requested by the administration of President Barack Obama to fund the project for fiscal year 2015 be cut substantially—all the way down to zero.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Senate has recommended stripping $25 million from the administration's request. One way or another, it looks like the project won't be funded nearly as much as DHS and the General Services Administration, which manages federal office properties, had hoped.

That's obviously bad news for the DHS headquarters project, which is already wildly delayed. (Initially set to be completed this year, the estimated finish date is now 2026, and will likely be pushed back further.) What it means for the surrounding neighborhood is less clear.

Adjacent Congress Heights, and to a lesser extent neighboring Anacostia, has been banking on the St. Elizabeths project to inject new investment and life into the poverty-stricken area and help spark other development and retail. St. Elizabeths has two halves: Across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE from the federal complex is the east campus, owned by the D.C. government and slated for a massive mixed-use redevelopment. The east campus has also experienced major delays, first when the city canceled its initial solicitation for developers and again last month when the city nixed its hunt for firms to build infrastructure there.

If the DHS relocation to the west campus is derailed altogether, that wouldn't mean a total federal abandonment of the property, since the Coast Guard has already moved there. But it would significantly scale back the federal presence. Some city leaders have stressed the importance of a federal anchor for the area. "The only developer in the U.S. that consistently puts up money for historic properties is the federal government," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said in 2007, when the DHS move was under consideration.

Still, it's hard to imagine that neighbors of St. Elizabeths will shed many tears over the loss of the headquarters. The promise of economic revitalization driven by the federal presence is almost certainly overblown; just look at the Coast Guard, few of whose employees actually venture into Anacostia or Congress Heights to spend their dollars on food or other goods. Nearby Bolling Air Force Base might as well be in Texas, given how little time (and money) its workers spend in the adjacent neighborhoods. Many people would argue that the city would be better off with a publicly accessible area, full of residences or offices or park space, at the Bolling site than a military base.

If the federal government is unable to do anything with a portion of its St. Elizabeths property, it could do what it's done with the east campus and much of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center: give or sell it to the District. It could become an extension of the east campus, and allow Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue to become a vibrant corridor through the site rather than the dividing line between its federal and local halves. Of course, given the city's track record of developing its portion of St. Elizabeths, that might not happen quickly or efficiently. But for Congress Heights and Anacostia, it could be a better long-term outcome.

Photo by Aaron Wiener

  • Chris

    I have been hoping this project would not go through and the land would go to build condos. The reason? Anyone that has ever stood been on that side of 295 North realizes it has the BEST views of DC. Condos facing the monuments give you great views of all of Nation's capital, unobstructed since Bolling AFB doesn't have tall buildings on it whatsoever. The sunsets over the river are amazing. It would take competent city leadership (I can dream, can't I?) and a proper development plan to make it happen.

  • Jamie

    My property is .25 miles from the East Campus. I'm less concerned with the nature of the redevelopment of both campuses and more concerned that it actually GETS redeveloped. This is some of the most beautiful property and architecture in the district, and it's sitting there languishing in silence. It's sad AND it's bad for our neighborhood. The St. E's property should be the center of a vibrant neighborhood, not a sad reminder of the economic struggles faced by EotR communities. I hope something goes forth soon. Until then, we'll keep enjoying Gateway Pavilion every weekend! It's a decent start.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Good piece, Aaron. I agree that potential development of Congress Heights and Anacostia need not be dependent on the mystical and abstract hype of St. Es East & West. It may just never happen.

    There is a long history within Ward 8 of public works projects seemingly promising a new day...

    Brief history:

    The Defense Intelligence Agency was supposed to bring development. This was hyped in the 60's. When I mention this today many of the leaders of the recently formed civic organizations in Ward 8 don't know what I am talking about or where the DIA is. It's a large complex that nobody seems to mention anymore. They hype wore off decades ago, I guess. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_Intelligence_Agency

    The opening of the Green Line... The history of the southern end of the Green line is fascinating. Court cases. Neighborhood opposition. Eminent domain. Anacostia Station was built where it is today to be a destination for Prince George's County residents. Massive parking lot underused. Fast forward 24 years after its opening and not much in way of TOD development. [Sheridan Station is still a lot of dirt.] Vacant lots around the Metro have been vacant for decades. See WCP cover story, "Anacostia’s Train Rolls In" [May 18, 1990]

    While residential and retail has been built in recent years over top Green Line stations -- Ga Ave-Petworth, Columbia Heights, Shaw-HU, and Waterfront -- Anacostia, Congress Heights, Southern Ave, Nayor Road still just bus and parking lots.

    Williams Administration discussed idea of moving WMATA HQ to vacant land around Anacostia Metro station. Didn't happen. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/03/AR2005080301566.html

    For years now the idea of an Anacostia Streetcar has been discussed by DDOT. Is the one on H Street NE taking fares yet?

  • Madstamina

    DIA has enough tables in the cafeteria for all employees and you have to leave the base in order to visit the Ward 8 businesses. The proposed St. E project will only have a 200 seat cafe' to service 10,000 employees, they will be forced to venture out and visit the community. Plus they will not have to leave the campus in order to support. The planners got it right, if the funding comes.

  • Justin Thyme

    4000 Coast Guard employees are now working in their new offices, and 98% of them brown-bag their lunches. The cafeteria with 200 seats doesn't see more than 60 customers a day! GSA had hoped that the Coast Guard employees would venture out into the neighborhoods and spur economic growth. That kind of reasoning is clearly delusional. CG employees get 40 minute lunch breaks, not like GSA employees, who routinely take 2-hour lunches, or are "out to lunch" all the time! This project is nothing more than another GSA White elephant. GSA stands for "Gross Stupidity in Action."

  • jlsmom

    Can't really venture out to the neighborhood when most can't drive their own car to work. Its not like in Arlington where its a quick walk to the restaurant across the street.