About five miles from the White House, on the historic site of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a state-of-the-art medical research facility sits empty.
Founded in 1955, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) building once housed an eminent biomedical research program. Now our country can convert this abandoned but renovated facility into a world-class pediatric medical research center, devoted to the groundbreaking discoveries that can save children’s lives and advance global child health.
But this opportunity could be lost amid discussion over how to divide 43 acres of the Walter Reed site, upending a plan already agreed to by the Defense Department, approved by Congress and endorsed by key District officials and neighborhood groups.
Under a project planned by the Children’s National Health System (or “Children’s Hospital,” as it’s commonly known to families throughout the area), the AFIP complex would be transformed.
Drawing on the capacity of Children’s National to attract leading physician scientists and funding for cutting-edge research, Children’s Research Institute would be instrumental in identifying the new cures and treatments that can save lives and appreciably improve kids’ health.
The 400,000-square-foot facility would allow the expansion of numerous critical research programs already underway but that are cramped for space. Just a few examples: Children’s is studying how we can better protect the brains of infants, especially those born prematurely. Physicians are investigating the relationship between genetics and children’s cancer and how to “train” cells to fight back. We’re identifying ways of individualizing therapy to improve outcomes for HIV-infected children around the world. And we are studying rare genetic diseases, to improve quality of life for these children and to give us clues to treating more common medical conditions that also affect adults.
Kids would not be the only beneficiaries of this plan. The proposed institute also would benefit its neighbors along the Georgia Avenue corridor. With more than 180 furnished labs and 450 offices, the facility would draw hundreds of workers and visitors every day, injecting dollars into local restaurants, shops and services. And it would anchor the fast-growing biomedical industry in the metropolitan area and expand existing links between Children’s National and the National Institutes of Health.
So what’s the hurdle?
The project has support from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and the local advisory neighborhood commissions, as well as a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.
However, in the past few weeks, federal government officials have renewed discussion about the property, with the State Department seeking to keep the AFIP parcel in its allotted acres for eventual use by foreign embassies.
The potential destruction of the AFIP building is heartbreaking, given its storied past. Additionally, because some of the facilities were constructed to withstand nuclear attack, the teardown cost to federal taxpayers could be as much as $20 million. In contrast, conversion to a premier children’s medical research center would restore the renovated, move-in-ready labs to their intended use, with no further taxpayer investment.
We hope that Secretary of State John F. Kerry, long recognized as a strong advocate for children’s health, will guide a solution at Walter Reed that leaves everyone a winner. The plan for the District to receive 67 acres for mixed-use town-center development would be unaffected. Meanwhile, the congressionally approved plan to transfer the AFIP complex for a public health good should go forward, honoring the legacy of the armed forces scientists who did so much groundbreaking work on this site and benefitting children here and around the world.
The writer is president and chief executive of Children’s National Health System.