Philip Kennicott on Homeland Security's Takeover of St. Elizabeths Campus

A view of Washington from an elevated section of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, which will house U.S. security operations.
A view of Washington from an elevated section of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital campus, which will house U.S. security operations. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Councilman Marion Barry was late, and Mayor Adrian Fenty even later, but both arrived in time to grab a golden shovel and turn a little earth on the lush green lawn of St. Elizabeths Hospital. And with that, ground was officially broken for the $3.4 billion headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, a vast new federal complex that will be built on the quiet hilltop with spectacular views where once stood the city's main hospital for the mentally ill.

Barry joked that most of the crowd -- filled with Coast Guard uniforms and suits from the DHS and the General Services Administration -- probably needed a GPS to find it. Which was a sly reference to what many of his Ward 8 constituents, also in the crowd, were thinking: that the federal government was finally investing, in a big way, east of the Anacostia River, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Barry thanked Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who helped create the grab-bag department of security-related agencies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And apropos of nothing, he reminisced about the days of the civil rights struggle, when he and the district's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, had "to fight those mean, mean white people."

They didn't amen that one, as they did some other remarks of the morning. In general, the mood was celebratory. Norton was ecstatic and noted the critical role of $162 million in stimulus funding in moving the project forward. Lieberman hailed the largest federal project built in the region since the Pentagon. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new campus, which will be home to 14,000 employees when finished in 2016, will help her fledgling agency grow into a more cohesive entity with a unified culture.

But for others around the city, and around the country, the shovels of earth might as well have fallen on a coffin lid. After years of wrangling and public hearings, after complaints and impassioned pleas from historic-preservation groups and skeptical analysis from think tanks (the Brookings Institution has cast doubt on the economic benefits to Ward 8), the fight was over. What had begun in the 1850s as one of the country's most innovative facilities for treating mental illness, and remains one of the city's largest and most sylvan sites for development, is beginning the long, slow process of rebirth as a modern, Level 5 security complex, to be surrounded by double perimeter walls and all but closed forever to the public.

Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, didn't attend the event, but found it all rather sad. "We have been involved with this for at least six years, and we have constantly tried to make the case that they are trying to shoehorn too much square footage of new construction into a national landmark site," said Moe. The trust, he noted, did help reduce the amount of new building on the 176-acre site, and pressured the GSA to preserve and rehabilitate 52 of 62 historic buildings that are part of St. Elizabeths landmark designation.

But he's still worried about the amount of parking that will be built and plans for an access road that have yet to be approved. Even though a backhoe with a grappler bucket was already tearing an old concrete building to shreds near the ceremonial tent, Moe thinks the groundbreaking may be premature.

Over the past years, as plans were made public and worked their way through the approval process, there was a recurring refrain from beyond the preservation community: St. Elizabeths could be something else. There was a proposal to make the west campus (the east campus is still in use for various city purposes) into the home of a university. Or to renovate it as a mixed-use urban village with housing and retail, an anchor to a revitalized Southeast neighborhood.

Although the site had been closed to most of the public during its many decades as a mental institution, there was a powerful cultural memory of its landscape and the magnificent views from "the Point," an overlook with a sweeping vista of the city below. There was hope that a newly enlivened St. E's, as it is known, would be a local amenity, a hub that could transform the distressed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and extend the booming development of the pre-crash years into a neighborhood where Barry says there is "35 percent unemployment."

Against that, there was pragmatism. No entity but the federal government had deep enough pockets to renovate and rebuild St. E's, it was said. The longer the campus remained empty (the last outpatient treatment there ended in 2003), the more the buildings would deteriorate, perhaps past hope of revival.

On a tour of the campus last winter, GSA representatives pointed to the challenge of renovating the central building, where poet Ezra Pound was confined after cavorting with Italian Fascists during the Second World War. Much of the historic structure, a somber brick building with an imposing square tower where the hospital's superintendent and his family once lived, is subdivided into small, dark rooms, each with load-bearing walls. To open up these cells into a free-flowing, contemporary office space will require expensive structural retrofitting.

The government was also looking for a large site, in or near the District, to consolidate some 35 DHS offices around the region. St. E's made perfect sense. And now, with stimulus money burning a hole in the bureaucratic pocket, things are moving very quickly.

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