Scouting a New Home For Homeland Security

Project Could Give Run-Down St. Elizabeths Site a Facelift

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007; Page C01

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.

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