President Bush proposed yesterday to give the District government control over roughly 200 acres of federal land in the city, most of it waterfront property where redevelopment could increase D.C. tax revenue by tens of millions of dollars a year.
The biggest parcels are the 66-acre site of the former D.C. General Hospital on Capitol Hill, 15 acres of parking lots near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and 100 acres of parkland at Poplar Point, on the east side of the Anacostia River.
In a letter to Congress, which must approve the plan, Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten cited the government's "special relationship" with the District and said the properties involved are "not currently providing substantial value to the federal government; some in fact are an unnecessary burden."
D.C. officials said the proposed transfer of federal property is the largest since the city was granted home rule in 1973. The proposal rewards a multi-year campaign by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and civic leaders to redevelop the Anacostia waterfront and to persuade the federal government to compensate the District for contributing to its fiscal problems.
Congressional analysts estimate that the District loses out on $470 million to $1.1 billion a year in tax revenue because of the federal presence. The so-called "structural imbalance" arises because 42 percent of District land is owned by the federal government and other entities that do not pay taxes -- such as embassies and nonprofit groups -- and because Congress exempts nonresident workers from paying District income tax.
Williams, who has called the 20-year, $20 billion public plan to revive the Anacostia waterfront his greatest potential legacy, said in a statement that he is grateful to Bush.
"This plan will benefit not only the people who live here but also the millions of workers and tourists who come to Washington each year," the mayor said.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) welcomed Bush's support of the long-sought transfers, which came after a comprehensive survey of federal land in the District that Bush requested in February.
The federal government would turn over 17 parcels in all to the city. In return, the District would give up control of five administrative buildings on a federal portion of the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast Washington where federal officials want to build a U.S. Coast Guard headquarters. The District also would give up 11 small parcels throughout the city, mostly to help National Park Service management at various sites.
City officials have long coveted the 66-acre D.C. General Hospital site, also known as Reservation 13, just south of RFK. The city has proposed a waterfront project with 800 housing units, 3.2 million square feet of health care and office space, including a 250-bed hospital, and 35,200 square feet of retail space.
The 15 acres of National Park Service land northwest of RFK would be turned over to the city on the condition that some of it be provided to a D.C. public charter boarding school, such as one run by the nonprofit SEED Foundation, city officials said.
The 100 acres at Poplar Point would be given to the city under terms that include relocation of existing National Park Service and U.S. Park Police facilities. City planners propose a 70-acre park that might include gardens, commemorative spaces, an amphitheater, a major cultural institution, wetlands and memorials.
"It's a wonderful day for the District," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), chairman of the council's economic development committee. "To say it's part of land we hope the president will transfer title to some day is one thing, but to actually have a bill before Congress to accomplish that is something else entirely."
The proposal will face review by several committees in Congress, and concerns by western lawmakers about excepting the District from federal land transfer rules might complicate passage, congressional officials said.
City planners said improvements could be visible at the sites within five years of the legislation's passage, but construction would continue in phases for significantly longer.
"I look forward to moving this initiative, or something similar, through committee and to the House floor," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees the District. "It's the ultimate win-win: The federal government gets rid of land and buildings that are costly and underutilized, and the District gets a much-needed opportunity to redevelop them."
Williams's spokesman said the city had no economic impact estimate available, and an OMB official said an analysis was omitted to speed the plan.
Both Poplar Point and the D.C. General site are "extremely viable sites," D.C. developer Jim Abdo said. Abdo associate Toby Millman said the latter parcel is now "a dead zone," adding: "You have RFK over there, but then the city peters out as it goes toward the river. It would be great to tie Capitol Hill into the Anacostia River, and Reservation 13 will certainly help to do that."
The District also would gain control over 14 smaller sites near developments such as the proposed baseball stadium at South Capitol Street, Eastern Market, the Eighth Street SE retail corridor and the former City Museum at Mount Vernon Square.
Bolten said the proposal is a "first step" in a broad review, and later transfers might be considered, although those would involve relatively small parcels.