At Walter Reed site, officials push for a town center


A look at the campus of the Walter Reed U.S. Army medical center from inside the pavillion of the rosegarden. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

It has been more than a year since patients walked down the ramp from the massive concrete hospital, wheelchairs rolled along the paved paths that crisscross the lawns and nurses headed to work stepped off the No. 70 bus at the corner of Georgia Avenue NW and Butternut Street NW.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center closed a year ago, and District planners, Army officials and residents from surrounding neighborhoods have been thinking about how every inch of the campus may be used in the future, from the stately hospital building where President Dwight D. Eisenhower died to the 1,000-space underground parking garage built in the 1970s.

The base’s closure has been painful for businesses along Georgia Avenue NW that fed and supplied those frequenting Walter Reed, but the city has proposed a town center development in the hospital’s stead, and a number of affordable-housing builders and schools have already claimed portions of the site. By early next year, District officials hope to begin a search for a private development partner.

Walter Reed is surrounded by neighborhoods — Shepherd Park, Brightwood and Takoma — whose residents typically have to leave the city to shop.

“The residents there have been craving retail along Georgia Avenue for years,” said Ernest D. Jarvis, a senior vice president at First Potomac Realty Trust. The son of former D.C. council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, he grew up in nearby Colonial Village.

With Walter Reed vacated, Jarvis said, “This is the time that the neighbors can have, in the future, a thoughtful mixed-use project.”

Some elements decided

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is reviewing the plans and a D.C. Council committee is scheduled to consider them Oct. 16, but some of what will be built at Walter Reed has already been decided. The State Department wants to build a row of embassies for more than 20 nations, similar to the International Chancery Center at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW, on 43.5 acres it plans to acquire on the west end of the campus.

Uses for the remaining 66.6 acres have been identified through a public engagement and selection process managed by the project’s Local Redevelopment Authority since the campus was pegged for closure by the Pentagon in 2005.

Two nonprofit organizations, So Others Might Eat and Help USA, plan to provide up to 115 homes for the homeless on the southern end, while two schools, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School and Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School, want to open facilities near 16th Street NW. Howard University — which asked for a majority of the campus as a place to relocate its medical offices and clinical research facilities — plans to open an ambulatory care unit in two buildings on the eastern end near Georgia Avenue NW.

That’s where things stand today. To deliver enough retail to satisfy existing residents and stem the flight of sales tax dollars to the suburbs, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s economic development team has mapped out a town square development totaling 3.1 million square feet of development, more than 550,000 square feet of it in existing historic buildings, plus 14 acres of open space.

The vision calls for tearing down the mammoth, 2.6 million-square-foot Brutalist concrete hospital that was completed in 1977 and using its underground parking garage to attract big name retailers to a town center between 13th and 14th streets, south of Elder Street and north of Dahlia Street. Between Fern and Elder streets, 90 town homes would be built.

Wegmans, the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain, has considered the location, and a who’s who of big name retailers toured the site with District officials last year, including Costco, Giant, Harris Teeter, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Safeway and Whole Foods.

In the original brick hospital building, which first opened in 1909, the District hopes to attract a user in need of a campus-like atmosphere. The entire campus may be named its own historic district, and the original hospital’s structure, parts of its interior, and a garish blue fountain out front may all fall under historical protection.

“That’s got a great potential for attracting an anchor that could be corporate, cultural or educational,” said Susana Arissó, senior planner and designer at Perkins and Will, the planning firm the District hired for Walter Reed.

Voicing their interest

Although the District has not yet begun seeking a master developer, real estate firms, retailers and universities and colleges have already begun voicing their interest. Herb Miller, who has developed more than 20 million square feet, said he is considering a bid for the property that would propose reusing the campus as a center for commercialization of research.

“My view on Walter Reed is that it was one of the great original research facilities in the world, and they should try to reinstate a major portion of it to research that creates business and jobs for the District,” he said.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said her constituents’ interest in new amenities meant that the District ought to break the project into smaller, more manageable pieces. “Certainly an agreement is going to have to be fashioned so that the developer is going to be incentivized to get the project done in phases,” she said.

Reusing the historic buildings and providing transportation are concerns. Though the eastern end of the campus is a 15- to 20-minute walk to the Takoma Metro station, the District has proposed adding a streetcar line along Georgia Avenue. The earliest that could open is 2016.

“I think in the long term we’re looking forward to having [streetcars] service the site, but we also acknowledge and know that that’s not coming immediately,” said Jeff Miller, director of development under Deputy Mayor Victor L. Hoskins.

When it is fully built out, at a cost of likely more than $640 million, the security fences that have long separated the campus from its neighbors would come down. Streets off of Fern and Aspen would be extended into the campus center. New glass-skinned apartments and storefronts could line Georgia Avenue.

But many aspects of today’s quiet campus would likely remain: The hallways in the original hospital where doctors hurried to their patients’ aid. The quarters where nurses slept between shifts. The rose garden where soldiers married their sweethearts.

An earlier version of this story erroneously said the campus is a 15- to 20-minute walk from Fort Totten Metro station. The story is now corrected to say Takoma Metro station.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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