D.C. Council member Tommy Wells floats relocation of city jail

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has proposed an out-of-the-box idea that he thinks could deliver a new jail to the city and provide new life to the stalled Hill East development.

The D.C. Jail, formally the Central Detention Facility, is currently located in a blocklike structure at 1901 D St. SE, which, after years of escalating property values on Capitol Hill, is on the edge of one of the city’s strongest real estate markets. It is also in the midst of one of the city’s largest development plans, the Hill East Waterfront. Developers bidding to lead that project have been forced to design around it — a less than attractive proposition.

Wells said the jail, built in 1976 and already subject to a population cap, needs replacing, and he said operational savings from a new building could allow the city to borrow capital costs needed for a new facility.

But where to put it? Wells said he floated the idea of Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, where developer Akridge owns nine acres. The move would be facilitated, Wells said, by a land swap between the city and Akridge, whereby D.C. would trade Akridge the current jail’s property and in return acquire space for a new jail on Buzzard Point. The council member said he had vetted the basics of the swap with Akridge and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration.

“The first thing was to ask if everybody was at least open to it and then they all said they were open to it. The Office of Planning was in fact very interested in it. The next thing is, can everyone focus on it?” Wells said.

If the swap took place, Wells said, a soccer stadium for D.C. United might be built on the old jail site, which is south of RFK Stadium. Akridge and D.C. United have discussed the possibility of building a stadium for the team.

Wells has a lot of convincing to do. Victor Hoskins, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he was aware of Wells’s idea but hadn’t seen any specifics. Matt Klein, president of Akridge, said that “of the half a dozen or a dozen ideas that have been tossed around for Buzzard Point, that is not one of the ones that has been the subject of any kind of substantive discussion.”

Wells recently lost his chairmanship of the transportation committee in a reshuffling of D.C. Council committee assignments. But his new committee allows him oversight of the office of planning, which he said could further his efforts.

“Putting me in charge of the office of planning was a very, very dangerous thing to do,” he said.

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