WALTER REED Army Medical Center has been in the District of Columbia longer than most residents of the city. For people living in the Washington area, the 96-year-old hospital on Georgia Avenue is as much a part of the city's landscape as the shrines on the National Mall. That alone helps explain why news of the federal base-closing commission's vote to close Walter Reed is being taken so hard by so many. The reality, however, is that the storied medical center is not leaving the nation's capital anytime soon. And if and when it does, the United States's premier military medical facility will still remain a part of the region, in name and certainly in function.

A 340-bed Walter Reed medical center on the Bethesda campus of what is now the National Naval Medical Center means the area will still retain many of the jobs and services now located at the 113-acre Walter Reed campus in the District, though primary patient care may move to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County. The real impact, in addition to the transfer of jobs out of the city, is the shuttering of an institution that, for generations, has been an integral part of the District's landscape.

Just as there will be years before Walter Reed becomes part of Montgomery County, the District also has a long wait to learn the ultimate disposition of the parcels on which the hospital now sits. That Walter Reed occupies prime real estate is without question. The desire of District leaders to have the federal government turn over control of the property to the city is understandable. The campus would provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform that segment of Northwest Washington into a location of vibrant commercial and residential properties. Before getting there, however, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said yesterday that the federal government will have to follow complicated procedures to find a new use for the land, starting by giving other federal agencies a chance to snap it up. The District, she suggested, is at the end of the line. But need that be the case?

President Bush may not be inclined to reverse the base-closing commission's recommendation, according to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). That isn't to say the White House can't recognize the importance of giving the District an unprecedented opportunity to improve its tax base as well as increase development in Northwest Washington. District leaders should shed their disappointment with the commission's vote. It's not too soon to begin work on a strategy to persuade the federal government to make the Walter Reed campus part of the city's land inventory.