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Planning Agency Approves Homeland Security Complex

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

After years of battling historic preservationists, the federal government won approval yesterday to build a massive headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security on a 176-acre hilltop site east of the Anacostia River.

The $3.4 billion headquarters would be one of the largest construction projects in the Washington area since the Pentagon was built in the 1940s. Advocates say it would generate economic activity in one of the city's poorer corners and provide a secure workplace for 14,000 Homeland Security employees scattered across the Washington area.

"This is an important step forward for Anacostia and for Washington," said John V. Cogbill III, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, which voted 9 to 1 to approve the master plan for the headquarters, to be built on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Historical preservationists have said the project would ruin a national landmark site with panoramic views of the District, where the first federal psychiatric institution was established in Southeast Washington in 1852. Some questioned whether a high-security facility tucked behind two layers of fencing would produce much of a payoff for the neighborhood.

"The DHS employees might as well be working on the moon for all their presence will benefit the city," testified David Garrison, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who said that the personnel would largely commute from the suburbs.

The dissenting vote on the master plan came from a National Park Service representative, who warned that the development could endanger the site's historic landmark status.

If Congress provides funding, construction will begin next year and continue through 2016, according to the plan. Building the complex and renovating existing historical structures would create at least 26,000 jobs, officials said.

"The timing is optimal," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has championed the project. "Development has dried up in the city, and this is direct government-funded work."

Under the plan, most of the facility would be built on the vacant western campus of St. Elizabeths, property owned by the federal General Services Administration. One large building would be constructed on land leased from the District on the eastern campus, where the D.C. government is hoping to lure offices, restaurants and shops.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods have expressed mixed feelings about the complex. James Bunn, executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council, predicted that Homeland Security's migration would serve as a long-needed catalyst for new retail and housing in the Congress Heights community.

"Those 14,000 employees will need a place to live," he said. "And they'll need somewhere to eat. I can already see a coffee shop or a sit-down restaurant. It's a win-win situation for the ward."

But Linda Jackson, executive director of the East of the River Community Development Corp., questioned whether Homeland Security employees would leave their self-contained campus along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and frequent nearby businesses.


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