D.C. begins to plan redevelopment of Walter Reed campus

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

The possibilities are endless: condominiums and townhouses, offices, parks, a retirement community, a medical research campus -- and a makeover of the worn Georgia Avenue retail corridor near the District's border with Montgomery County.

Now that 62 acres of the soon-to-be-shuttered campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center will go to the District, the vision of one of the city's biggest redevelopment opportunities is starting to take shape.

On Thursday night, a panel of city officials and civic activists charged with planning the property's new identity began a process that is expected to take eight months. The most important goal: to integrate the long-isolated federal outpost with the city beyond its fence.

"For so long it's been closed off," said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who represents the area. She ticked off her wish list for the property: housing for seniors, green space, recreation space, apartments. "It's going to be awesome."

Millions of square feet of potential development are at stake on the southern end of the Army base's 113-acre campus between 16th Street and Georgia Avenue NW.

Walter Reed is scheduled to close next year after a decision approved in 2005 under the federal base realignment and closure plan. All medical operations there will be transferred to a campus at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and an Army hospital under construction at Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County. District officials said Thursday night that the September 2011 closing date had been pushed back, although it is not clear to when.

The District was notified late last year that it could claim its land, generally bounded by Georgia Avenue and 14th, Dahlia and Aspen streets. The city had to wait for two federal agencies to claim their parcels. The General Services Administration, the federal government's leasing agency, is taking over 32 1/2 acres at the northern end and the State Department 18 acres to the west. The District might have to pay for its parcel, but Bowser said that has not been determined, and no estimate has been established.

This month, the city requested bids from food pantries and advocates for the homeless that provide housing and supportive services. Under Army rules, those groups and those interested in other public uses, such as parks or hospitals, receive first consideration. Responses are due in February. The economic team of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) is planning to hire a consultant and real estate development firm to analyze the potential of the property.

Before that can happen, the Army is expected to pay for an 18-month environmental cleanup: Oil tanks are buried on the property, and one building contains a small nuclear reactor switched on by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in 1962 to study nuclear medicine.

The city also must decide how many of the 29 buildings on its portion, which are in varying conditions, will be adapted or torn down. Whatever new uses the District decides on, it might have to share the campus with a high-security tenant as federal agencies assess their needs. Among the challenges will be working around a 100-foot setback the U.S. government requires for secure buildings, if one were to be built on the federal portions of the property.

Mina Wright, an urban design and development executive for the GSA, said the government would probably take longer than the city to decide what to do with its property. But she said the agency is aware that the city wants Georgia Avenue to be a centerpiece of the redevelopment. "We've heard this loud and clear."

Walter Reed's campus has 65 buildings, including a 35,000-square-foot gym, tennis and basketball courts, and a 200-room hotel for families of wounded soldiers, contractors and military personnel. Among the historic structures is the original hospital, an elegant brick structure at the northern edge that dates from 1909. President Dwight D. Eisenhower died there in 1969, and it is used as an administration building.

The District's property will include the vacant Building 18, a former hotel east of Georgia Avenue that served as overflow housing for recovering soldiers. A Washington Post investigation in 2007 uncovered the decrepit living conditions there and triggered a federal review.

"Right now, it's a fortress where everything is inward-focused," said Dale Smith, who is leading the project for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development. "We're going to do something that's outward-focused."

Many of the 45 neighbors and community activists who sat in the audience at the Fort Stevens Recreation Center on Van Buren Street NW on Thursday night agreed that any new development needs to become a central part of the community. Akbar Sharrieff, a retired lab technologist at Walter Reed, wasn't sure about what he would like on the site. His wife, Virginia View, a retired medical social worker, had a clear idea: She wants a retirement community.

"It's a perfect setting" View said. "The demographics are there. That way I can pack my bags and go right up the street."

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