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Tussle Over St. Elizabeths

(Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

With no answer in sight, the federal government took over the west campus again three years ago. The GSA began nailing plywood over windows and shoring up roofs until a tenant could be found.

Homeland Security made its pitch to Congress in 2006. St. Elizabeths is the only site large enough to allow the agency to consolidate, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Norton -- who had long faulted the District and the federal government for allowing St. Elizabeths, and therefore Ward 8, to deteriorate -- was pleased that the GSA had found a tenant.

But preservation organizations have concerns.

"The site may have been selected only on its availability and size but without regard to all the characteristics that make it unique and particularly valuable," said Luebke, whose Commission of Fine Arts will review the DHS plan from a design perspective.

The Preservation League's Miller said she worries that employees -- 26,000 eventually -- will drive to work, disappear behind high-security walls and drive out again at day's end without connecting with the community. "This is a huge lost opportunity," she said.

Miller was part of the contingent that met with Fenty. "We urged him to let Congress know that D.C. should keep its historic fabric, and he seemed open to that," she said.

Nieweg, the Historic Preservation attorney, pointed to architectural drawings showing construction occupying almost every square foot of open space and questioned how Homeland Security could maintain the historical integrity of the property. He said he worries that the Civil War cemetery will be closed to the public and the campus "ringed with double-security fences."

Nieweg and other preservationists are open to a government agency on the site but would prefer historically sensitive commercial development. He pointed to the parks and re-used historic structures of the Presidio in San Francisco and the homes and shops on what used to be Fort Sheridan in Chicago.

Miller offered a model closer to home: The Armed Forces Retirement Home has enlisted the GSA's help to prepare a master plan to incorporate mixed-used development while maintaining historic integrity.

Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, said she could live with Homeland Security, as long as the agency didn't isolate itself. Development that's open to the community would mean customers for struggling businesses, new residents and maybe even a supermarket and gas stations willing to take credit cards.

Sandra Seegars, an ANC member who has been a Congress Heights resident since 1969, said commercial development would be her first choice, a government agency second. Anything but housing. "It's such a beautiful site, it would be for rich people," she said.

GSA spokesman Michael McGill said that his agency has conferred with the community, and he insisted that history will be respected. Norton maintained that security for Homeland Security would be no more stringent than for any other government building. "We don't want to be precious about Homeland Security," she says. "They're just a bunch of paper pushers."

Luebke acknowledged that a high-security federal agency might be the best use for the St. Elizabeths campus, but he said the issue deserves broader public discussion and study. The District's healthy economy could offer a way out: "There may be options now that didn't exist just a few years ago," he said.

"This is an enormous decision that's being made," Luebke said. "Whatever we do now is going to change the site forever. I don't want us to make a mistake."


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