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Correction to This Article
A Feb. 21 Metro article about proposed development on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington incorrectly said that Lincoln Cottage was named a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The article also misstated the year in which the trust placed the cottage on its list of 11 most endangered historic places in the United States; it was in 2000, not 2005.

Growth Fight Invades Soldiers' Refuge

Activists say development would threaten the historic nature of the Old Soldiers' Home and unleash traffic into neighborhoods.
Activists say development would threaten the historic nature of the Old Soldiers' Home and unleash traffic into neighborhoods. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The rolling hills of one of Washington's largest spans of undeveloped land are dotted with pines and oaks, two fishing ponds, a fighter plane and a tank.

At the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, those acres have been the place of quiet contemplation for legions of veterans who fought with swords in the U.S.-Mexican War, lost limbs in the Civil War, threw grenades in World War I and manned battleships in World War II. It is where President Abraham Lincoln escaped to a summer cottage and where he penned the last draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But the battle that is the talk of the home's hallways is raging around the historic site itself.

Its administrators have drafted a master plan, opposed by a small group of neighborhood activists and planning officials, to save the landmark from financial hardship by turning more than half its vast space -- 9 million square feet -- into a development project that could include condominiums, shops, a hotel, embassies, and medical and office buildings.

The land is the retirement home's biggest asset, and leasing much of it to developers is crucial for "our financial survival," said Timothy Cox, chief operating officer for the home, better known as Old Soldiers' Home. "We truly have no other choice."

But some residents and planning officials have balked at the scale and scope of the master plan, which calls for 130-foot-tall buildings in a neighborhood of small townhouses with canopied front porches. The plan also has been criticized for lacking a traffic plan for the area, which could be flooded by thousands of new people.

"My neighbors and I are sympathetic to the home's needs," said Reyn Anderson, who lives near the campus, but she said, "A worthy goal does not give the home carte blanche."

Since the home was established in 1851, its campus, surrounded by the Park View, Columbia Heights and Petworth neighborhoods, has been shrinking. The 500 acres slowly have been whittled away as land has been taken for Children's Hospital, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Washington Hospital Center and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In 2004, the home sold 46 acres to Catholic University for $22 million, the first time the home made money off its land, Cox said.

But it continues to grapple with tough financial times. Faced with rising health care costs and an aging World War II population among its approximately 1,000 residents, Cox said the home is scraping a trust fund that is supported by 50-cent-a-week paycheck deductions from enlisted military personnel. The home is under the auspices of the Defense Department, but it does not receive taxpayer money.

War, however, has been good for the home; it has made more money recently, with many troops mobilized to Iraq and Afghanistan. But the future of its health care, decades down the road when these veterans could come to the home, is a looming and potentially expensive problem, Cox said.

"The wounded military coming back now, we haven't had to deal with those types of severe disabilities. In World War II, soldiers with those injuries -- they didn't survive. They died," Cox said. "We have to find a way to pay for heroes coming back with things like three prostheses, a colostomy bag or a head wound they will have for the next 60 years of their lives."


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