The sixth-floor windows of the new Whitman-Walker Health center on 14th Street NW offer a million-dollar view of the Logan Circle neighborhood: tony rowhouses, rooftops of luxury condo buildings and the signs of upscale restaurants.
Inside, more than a third of the center’s patients are at or below the poverty level.
Whitman-Walker, the District’s largest community-based provider of HIV services, cut the ribbon on its new health facility Thursday, between P and Q streets, a few blocks south of its longtime Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center headquarters at 14th and R streets NW.
Although the move is mere blocks, it’s also notable. The center is keeping with its mission of providing health care to underserved communities while remaining in an upscale corridor as other social-service agencies and longtime businesses are shuttering or moving east.
Fourteenth Street, emblematic of new wealth that has transformed parts of the District in recent years, was not so long ago known for prostitution and crime — and lined with establishments offering social services to the area’s largely poor residents.
Many of these agencies and businesses have cashed in on their valuable properties and left. The charity Martha’s Table announced last month that it would move its longtime 14th Street headquarters to Southeast Washington, where many of its clients live.
But nonprofit Whitman-Walker, which now functions as a general health provider, says that the area is still one of the most accessible in the District and that it wants to stay in the historic heart of the city’s gay community.
When Whitman-Walker began in 1973, it served gay men exclusively. The center’s clientele has shifted, and today, nearly 40 percent of its patients identify as heterosexual, according to 2014 data from Whitman-Walker.
Its patients’ homes are now spread throughout the District’s wards. (Thirteen percent live in Ward 2, where its headquarters are located, and 12 percent live in Ward 8.) Whitman-Walker also has a smaller facility in Ward 8’s Anacostia.
Still, the organization owes much of its financial viability to the gay community, which is, in part, why it’s committed to remaining in Logan Circle.
When the AIDS epidemic struck the District, many of its clients, when they died, left their property and money to Whitman-Walker, which was at the forefront of fighting the disease in the city. At the time, Whitman-Walker used these homes as hospice centers, later renting or selling most of them in tough financial times.
In 2008, Whitman-Walker sold a long-standing property it purchased at 14th and S streets NW that is now the trendy Doi Moi restaurant and the upscale cocktail bar 2 Birds 1 Stone.
“A big part of our mission is to serve this [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community. It’s a big part of our identity — that is, that people of that community feel affirmed and that they feel like they can come here for quality health care,” said Don Blanchon, executive director of Whitman-Walker. “We’re not that far removed from a period where people didn’t feel like mainstream medicine cared about them and could treat them.”
The architecture of the new building itself — which boasts modern furniture, a pharmacy on its ground floor, dental facilities, mental health and yoga spaces, and gender-neutral restrooms — represents how far health care has come for the city’s LGBT residents.
The 42,000-square-foot building, nicknamed “1525” after its address, looks much like the area’s new condo buildings, with their huge, glass windows — a sign that today’s patients no longer feel the need to hide from the public eye, according to the clinic. With an expansive offering of services, people no longer know what services clients are seeking when entering the building.
“This is a big step up; everything you need is right here,” said Achim Howard, a 44-year-old HIV-positive transgender man who started receiving medical treatment from Whitman-Walker in 2006 when he lived in a homeless shelter. Howard now serves as a patient representative on the center’s Board of Directors and receives medical and mental health services there. “They’ve been my backbone.”
Although Whitman-Walker is not moving from the corridor, it’s still hoping to cash in on its coveted real estate.
The health center, which signed a 10-year lease and paid $9.8 million in build-out costs for its new facilities, has no plans to sell its old property — a large slab of property that has the potential for 165,000-square-feet of development — where many of its administrative offices are now housed.
Instead, Whitman-Walker entered a joint partnership with Rockville-based Streetscape Partners to develop the massive property. The clinic still holds majority ownership of the property.
Andy Altman, who was the city’s director of planning under then-Mayor A. Anthony Williams (D) and now is a principal at Streetscape Partners, said the plan is to convert the property to a mixed-use development. Whitman-Walker will maintain office space there, and the rest will probably be residential and retail space. Altman estimates the project will be completed in about five years.
“We are going to try and provide some community- and neighborhood-oriented businesses,” Altman said, adding that, although it’s in the early-planning stages, they would consider subsidizing some rents for shop owners. “The first thing you need to do is really understand the place and understand the people in the community. What’s missing and who’s not being served?”
With the District’s growing population and the federal Affordable Care Act in place, officials at Whitman-Walker expect its clientele to grow. It could use the old location for future expansion.
“Whitman-Walker has been a vital link to health services for communities that are often overlooked by mainstream health providers,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said. “I’m happy they’ve put their stakes here.”