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In St. Elizabeths project, opportunities for many

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By Dana Hedgpeth, Lisa Rein and Jonathan O'Connell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 26, 2010

Fifteen minutes from downtown Washington, Bob Peck stood on a bluff across the Anacostia River where the massive government construction project he's running buzzed with activity -- a 4.5 million square-foot federal mini-city for the Department of Homeland Security rising on the west side of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital.

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In a dark suit and a baseball cap, the man in charge of designing, building and leasing office space for the federal government marvels at the scale. Backhoes scoop thousands of cubic yards of dark brown dirt to make way for the new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard, the first of 22 agencies scheduled to move into the Southeast development by 2016. Nearby, huge forklifts tear down a warehouse from the District's famous psychiatric hospital.

It's the largest federal construction job since the Pentagon in the 1940s. The $3.4 billion consolidation of Homeland Security's far-flung agencies in one campus is slated to create 16,000 direct construction jobs involving at least 100 contractors over the next six years. Presently there are roughly 400 construction workers on the site.

The potential for development is breathtaking. Panoramic views of official Washington and Northern Virginia. Interstate 295 and the Congress Heights Metro station minutes away. A District government vowing to mold 170 acres it controls on the east campus across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue into a destination place of shops, offices and homes. Another $3 billion in still-to-be-let construction contracts. Eventually, 14,000 DHS workers who will come and go every weekday, plus 2,000 daily visitors to the Homeland Security campus. The area, some say, could become another Crystal City of federal contractors hopping on the $17 billion Homeland Security train.

But as it rises in a community that has the city's highest rate of unemployment, community leaders and planners question whether investors will be lured there and rejuvenate the struggling neighborhoods that surround it.

"There's great opportunity with a great challenge," said Peck, commissioner of public buildings for the General Services Administration. "How do you take a secure campus and still make it a catalyst for development in Anacostia?"

The redevelopment of St. Elizabeths has been in the works for years. The sprawling campus, which is divided by Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, was built in the 1850s after social reformer Dorothea Dix persuaded Congress to provide money for a premiere psychiatric hospital. Preservationists fought hard to keep the DHS buildings in scale with the historic buildings on the site.

"You're talking about DHS being a mini-city within the city," said Merrick T. Malone, head of the District of Columbia Building Industry Association. "It can't help but spark the area and have a catalyst effect."

OBSTACLES TO WIDER CHANGE

But despite the hopes of community and city leaders and local residents, the obstacles to bringing back the neighborhoods around St. Elizabeths loom large. Lenders, planning experts and some developers say a 9-to-5 workforce alone, especially one behind a secure perimeter, will do little to spur development around the campus unless a large retailer comes along with it. The land rush that engulfed the area across the river five years ago as the new Washington Nationals ballpark was on the way isn't in sight around St. Elizabeths, at least not yet. There are few available large commercial spots nearby and land-use experts say there will be a lag time before the surrounding area starts to change.

"Even Crystal City didn't grow up around the Pentagon overnight," said developer Chris Smith, who has built shopping centers and housing projects in Ward 8.

Anacostia is a risky bet when downtown landlords can barely fill their office space, the condo market is dead and the renaissance around the ballpark is stuck.


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