Scouting a New Home For Homeland Security
Project Could Give Run-Down St. Elizabeths Site a Facelift

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Federal officials will seek approval starting this week for plans to build a giant headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, a $3 billion undertaking that would transform a dilapidated but historic site in Anacostia.

The plans call for one of the largest construction projects in the Washington area since the Pentagon was built in the 1940s. The complex would have 4.5 million square feet of office space for 14,000 employees. It would occupy the western campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the home of the first federal psychiatric institution.

Federal officials and Washington's delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), say the development would benefit Homeland Security and a depressed part of the city. They say that only the U.S. government is able to rescue the long-neglected site, given the costs of renovating the run-down 19th-century buildings and overhauling the infrastructure.

But some D.C. officials and residents wonder whether the facility would be a fenced-off fortress providing little economic benefit to the area. And preservationists are fighting it, concerned that the development would alter the D.C. skyline and destroy the character of the site, on high ground near the Anacostia River.

"We just feel very strongly that they're trying to put too many bodies into too small a space," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

At stake is the fate of the largest piece of unused federal land in Washington, a 176-acre parcel off Interstate 295 with sweeping views of the capital and a storied past as the birthplace of advances in psychiatry. The adjacent east campus, owned by the city, houses St. Elizabeths, which is run by the District.

The General Services Administration, which owns the western campus, is hoping construction can begin in a year. The approval process kicks off Thursday, when the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which advises on architecture in the capital, will hold a public meeting to review the draft master plan.

The master plan includes four options for developing the site, two of which are getting the most attention. One, the favorite of Homeland Security, envisions demolishing 25 of the 62 buildings. The other, reflecting input from historic preservation groups, would eliminate 18 buildings.

Both options would preserve the Center Building, a red-brick structure in Gothic revival style designed by Thomas U. Walter, the architect responsible for the Capitol dome. But the second version would place new buildings farther away to preserve the character of the college-style quadrangle at the heart of the campus. Most of the office space would be in large, modern buildings added to the site.

"We will save most of the historic buildings, and we will reuse them," said Michael McGill, a GSA spokesman. "But we cannot do that if we don't have a client to justify" the expense of rehabilitating the campus.

McGill said the final plan will probably reflect elements of the two options. "These are bracketing the negotiations for the next few months," he said.

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, said that members of the presidentially appointed panel plan to vote on the draft plan at Thursday's meeting. The commission can't stop the project, but it is considered influential in city design decisions. Members have expressed concerns about the scale of the development on a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's going to be a very visible thing on our skyline, and we're going to be living with whatever it is for a very long time," Luebke said.

The plan will also be reviewed Nov. 1 by the National Capital Planning Commission, which has veto authority over it. The commission is composed of representatives from the Bush administration, Congress, the office of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council.

The GSA said it will use feedback from the two sessions to revise the plan, and a final version will be delivered in January. Officials said they hope the proposal will get the go-ahead from the planning commission by April. At that point, architectural designs would be drawn up for the first phase of construction, a headquarters for the Coast Guard, McGill said.

Plans call for the site to accommodate Homeland Security headquarters personnel, including the department's secretary, and employees of divisions including the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The site would also have a barber shop, cafeteria, child-care center and gym. The draft master plan envisions building two entrances off I-295 to handle traffic to the site, and shuttle buses would run from the Metro.

President Bush's budget allots $318 million to begin construction in 2008, but Congress has not approved the expense.

Historic preservationists said they are not satisfied with either design. A coalition of groups has drawn up a study concluding that there should be no more than 2.5 million square feet of development at the site. The GSA is seeking almost twice that amount in office space, in addition to more than 5,000 parking spaces.

"I would guess that there will be some fairly strong efforts to try and have these two proposals changed," said John Clark of the D.C. Preservation League, one of many groups that have offered input in the past two years.

The preservationists' worries are shared by D.C. government officials.

"At some level, we're happy this beautiful, historic campus will receive the resources it needs," said Harriet Tregoning, the city's planning director. But, she said, "we continue to have concerns about the plans, mostly the intensity of the development."

D.C. officials and residents are also worried that the high-security facility would be largely self-contained and wouldn't bring economic development to the area.

Residents "are thinking it's just going to be another isolated area, behind the walls," said Sandra Seegars, a community activist and longtime resident of Congress Heights, a neighborhood next to the campus.

Federal officials acknowledged that security is one of the attractions of St. Elizabeths: Offices can be built at least 100 feet from Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and other streets, offering protection from car bombs and other dangers.

But they said the Homeland Security compound would offer benefits, including opportunities for local businesses to bid on the estimated $3 billion in construction work. And they said government contractors could cluster near the site, as they have around Navy facilities in the city.

In addition, "there's the symbolism -- a Cabinet-level agency is going to be headquartered in this area. Suddenly, this area has a certain cachet," McGill said.

St. Elizabeths is the only federal site in Washington that can accommodate Homeland Security, whose local employees are scattered among 60 offices, McGill said. If the agency can't move to the St. Elizabeths spot, it will probably have to move outside the city.

McGill said Homeland Security doesn't want to build a smaller headquarters, because it needs many employees at the site in the event of a national emergency. And the four-year-old agency wants to "achieve a critical mass of people to establish a common culture," he said.

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