By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006
City officials are boasting that a federal budget proposal to fund the relocation of the Coast Guard headquarters to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington will give "a shot in the arm" to the long-awaited development planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, one of the city's neglected commercial corridors.
President Bush's 2007 budget proposal calls for allocating $306 million for the headquarters, a three-year project that would involve constructing and rehabilitating buildings on the hospital's 176-acre west campus, according to a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which is managing the project. The total project would cost $330 million, and groundbreaking is expected to take place next year, he said.
City officials say moving the Coast Guard headquarters from Buzzards Point in Southwest Washington to the St. Elizabeths site could serve as a catalyst for the transformation of communities east of the Anacostia River. The project is one of several economic development initiatives that city and federal officials were to discuss during a community forum from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.
Continuous bus tours will take about 300 residents to project sites, including St. Elizabeths; Poplar Point, being considered for a new soccer stadium; and the South Capitol Street/Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and the 11th Street Bridge, both scheduled for improvements. The forum will also focus on the Anacostia streetcar project, an experimental light-rail system aimed at introducing the region to a new type of mass transportation.
Funding for the president's proposal for the Coast Guard headquarters requires approval from Congress, but Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who fought for the funding, is optimistic.
"When it was clear they were going to build on the west campus, I said, 'C'mon and do it,' because I knew in its wake would come commercial development, which is what Ward 8 complains has been missing in the development of the ward," Norton said.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said the president's proposal should help revitalize the area's commercial strip. "This money is a huge shot in the arm for our city, and I credit the White House for its steady investment in the District, for libraries, for transit and now for economic development," Williams said through a spokesman. "The renewal of the St. Elizabeths campus will bring more jobs and opportunities across the river."
St. Elizabeths' west campus is owned by the federal government.
In the past, relocation of federal offices has been followed by commercial development because it sends a signal to private developers that an area is a good, stable place to build, Norton said.
But city officials say they must convince some residents, who have complained for decades that the city has neglected their community, that the proposed projects would have a positive impact.
Stanley Jackson, deputy mayor of planning and economic development, said officials are "putting our money behind our mouth" with these proposals. He also acknowledged some apprehension, particularly among residents who have been displaced by urban renewal in other communities. It's the city's responsibility to bring the appropriate outreach to the community so "we can soften the resistance to this change," Jackson said.
"Historically, in the last 30 years, this community has been void of economic development," he said. "That's the tragedy. Now, we're making a commitment to this change."
Thelma Jones, who has lived in Southeast Washington since 1973, questions the city's motives. She doubts that the Coast Guard will generate jobs in Anacostia because it already has federal workers. She also opposes the streetcar project and says her neighborhood streets are too narrow to accommodate it.
"Everybody thinks they can tell us what we need in our community, but they're not putting any economic development here," said Jones, president of the Fairlawn Citizens Association. "They're not creating jobs for people in Anacostia. They think the people east of the Anacostia River are stupid and anything they bring us, we're supposed to grin and say 'thank you.' "
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said he is sensitive to such complaints but supports the initiatives, including the streetcar and bridge repairs, to ease traffic. He advocates changing the streetcar's route. "These opportunities, especially those that connect the city, help chip away with the geographical and psychological isolation that residents east of the river feel," Gray said. "It also sends a message that the areas that have been neglected are now becoming a priority."