DHS, GSA reassure builders on St. Elizabeths site

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration offered assurances to private builders last week that development of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital would continue despite delays forced by budget cuts.

A new 1.2 million-square-foot headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard is currently being constructed on the west campus of the former hospital in Southeast. It is the first phase of a planned $3.6 billion consolidation of 14,000 Department of Homeland Security workers on the sprawling campus, located along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast, but it is the only phase that is fully funded.

Recent budget requests by DHS and GSA have yet to be approved by Congress, which is focused on reducing the nation’s debt. At a meeting June 9 of the D.C. Building Industry Association, a group of Washington-area real estate professionals, Shapour Ebadi, deputy regional commissioner for the Washington area in the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, said the GSA was receiving only $30 million of the $380 million it requested for the project in the 2011 fiscal year, and DHS only $77 million after requesting $287.8 million.

From the fiscal 2012 budget, the House cut a $160 million request by DHS for the St. Elizabeths project. That money could be restored as the budget is debated, but Ebadi said he no longer expected the project to be completed in its entirety by the planned 2016 move-in date. “We would love to have everything complete by 2016, however, it just might be a different pace,” he said.

The District of Columbia, which owns the 172-acre eastern portion of the campus, is facing its own budget shortfalls, but Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has still proposed $65 million in funding for development of the east campus over the next five years.

Victor L. Hoskins, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said at the industry meeting that the city was working on a master plan for the site that was likely to include 1,000 housing units, 2.5 million square feet of office space (including a headquarters for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a DHS unit) and 200,000 square feet of retail. He said Gray was also working to attract local universities to be part of a 500,000-square-foot innovation center focused on security technology.

Hoskins said he expected the city to begin seeking private development partners for the site next year.

In the meantime, there still appears to be ways for the area’s poverty-stricken surrounding neighborhoods, including Anacostia, Barry Farm and Congress Heights, to tap into the development.

Carol Mitten, DHS executive director for Urban Affairs and Headquarters Consolidation in the office of the undersecretary for management, said that when the Coast Guard’s 3,700 headquarters employees relocate to the facility in May 2013, they will have a cafeteria of only 300 seats and will be looking for lunch options — of which the area presently has few. “It’s a significant challenge for us because we are very committed to get people out into the community, but it’s going to be particularly difficult for the Coast Guard,” she said.

Among the ideas for eating options, Mitten said, were food trucks and temporary, or pop-up, food sellers. Another is a structure that was used to house Eastern Market merchants temporarily and which Hoskins said he was trying to acquire from the D.C. Department of Transportation to bring shops to St. Elizabeths. “We are right now working with DDOT to get our hands on that, and it looks like it is going to work out,” he said.

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