After Defense Decision, a Realigned Landscape

Susan Carleson waters plants in front of her Alexandria townhouse on what once was the Army's Cameron Station.
Susan Carleson waters plants in front of her Alexandria townhouse on what once was the Army's Cameron Station. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hours after a federal commission recommended closing Walter Reed Army Medical Center, District officials started drawing up wish lists for the 113-acre site. Council members imagined acres of housing, while the mayor conjured visions of an "urban gateway" with the commercial pizazz of downtown Silver Spring.

Realizing those dreams will be neither quick nor easy, federal and local officials said yesterday. A host of obstacles stands in the way, from potential environmental contamination on the site to the possibility that the federal government might want to keep Walter Reed for purposes of its own.

But the District should move quickly to map out a new master plan for the property, according to those familiar with the base-closure process. And within the next few months, they said, city officials should begin the labor-intensive process of persuading Congress and the Pentagon to buy into their vision.

"It's not going to be D.C.'s decision. The Department of Defense has to sign off. The Army has to sign off. But the community can have a major impact on how this plan is shaped," said Tim Ford, executive director of the National Association of Defense Communities, a nonprofit group that has been helping cities deal with the economic implications of military installations for 25 years.

"It's important for the community to get started early and figure out what it wants," Ford said. "Because the [armed] services are going to be pushing to get things done."

With the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission scheduled to finish work today, as many as 20 communities nationwide face the loss or reduction of major military installations, Ford said. Many have started planning for reuse of the sites. Others, like the District, have put their efforts into fighting the closure recommendations.

D.C. officials, for example, have yet to formally decide whether they want to take control of the Walter Reed site, though key council members, including Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), have called on the mayor to do so.

The Walter Reed complex occupies a prime piece of real estate in a neighborhood of leafy streets and high-priced homes near the District's northern tip. Wedged between two major thoroughfares -- 16th Street and Georgia Avenue NW -- its potential development value is almost incalculable.

Ellen McCarthy, interim director of the mayor's Office of Planning, said her office must research a bewildering array of issues associated with the property.

"Walter Reed has been part of the fabric of the community for 100 years. It's in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We would definitely want the site," McCarthy said. But first, the city must determine "whether there is any medical waste, contamination or any other environmental issues," she said. In addition, part of the site is subject to historic preservation requirements.

The answers to those questions would have enormous impact on the value of the property should the Department of Defense decide to auction it. Other factors to be assessed: What sort of infrastructure exists on site? Is it up to code? Would the military raze the buildings or leave the city with a huge demolition project? Is there asbestos? PCBs? If so, would Congress pay for cleanup?

"Those are a lot of tough questions," said Jeffrey Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council, a nonprofit trade group. "The question is: Can you make lemonade out of these lemons?"

The District might have more time than other communities, Finkle said. Although some troops could pull out of closed bases in short order, the Walter Reed complex cannot be abandoned until a new medical center is built in Bethesda and other functions are shifted to new quarters, a process the base-closing panel estimates would cost $988 million. Planning for the Bethesda facility is likely to take years, McCarthy said. And it could take just as long for Congress to come up with the money, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's nonvoting representative in the House.

Once the new hospital is running, the Pentagon or the General Services Administration will dispose of the site, federal officials said. By law, it must be offered first to other federal agencies, either for their own use or for a public benefit, such as serving the homeless or providing recreational facilities. If no federal agency wants it, the property could be sold on the open market, to the District government or to a developer.

In Southern California, Orange County and the city of Irvine battled for more than a decade over whether to build a commercial airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which was ordered closed in 1993. The Navy finally sold the site this year to a private developer.

In Alexandria, 2,000 housing units, commercial space and recreational facilities began to bloom on the former Cameron Station a little more than a year after the Army locked the gates in September 1995. The Army's departure, however, came nearly seven years after the base was ordered closed in 1988.

Norton predicted it will be at least 10 years before Washington sees any significant changes at Walter Reed.

"We better enjoy Walter Reed, 'cause it's going to be there for a long time," she said.

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