City Paper is not for tourists
Just when he thought he was out, Ed Fisher got pulled back in.
The 38-year-old resident of Ward 7’s Eastland Gardens neighborhood remembers the recent call he got from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration that led him back through the public-private revolving door. Fisher—who served as both legislative director and chief of staff for now-outgoing Councilmember Yvette Alexander—was working in a regional community affairs role at BlueCross BlueShield when Bowser asked him to oversee development of the St. Elizabeths East Campus. It’s the largest infill project anywhere in D.C. today and falls under the auspices of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner. The 183-acre Ward 8 site is bigger than the long-promised Walter Reed Army Medical Center and McMillan projects in Wards 4 and 5.
Fisher accepted and began his new role on Sept. 26, replacing Vince Gray appointee Catherine Buell, who now directs the Atlanta Housing Authority.
The first phase of development is underway, including foundations for an entertainment and sports arena that will serve both as the Washington Wizards’ practice facility and as a venue for community events, concerts, and retail starting in fall 2018. The financial and political stakes for the mixed-use project are huge. The mayor and her staff have described it as “transformative,” “catalytic,” and, in reference to the arena specifically, “bigger than basketball.” The $65 million facility, bankrolled mostly with public funds, will go up where part of a psychiatric hospital once operated, across from the Congress Heights Metro station.
Then there’s housing. At the project’s completion, St. Elizabeths East will include around 1,300 residential units. Phase I alone promises 60 townhomes and 250 apartments for people of varying income levels. Planning officials hope for almost two million square feet of eventual office space, local and national businesses, and even a hotel or educational institutions, bringing the economic activity other areas of the District have seen east of the Anacostia River.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Fisher says coolly. “I’m pretty confident that along with the entire team we can get the job done. There are a lot of expectations, and I’m looking forward to meeting them.”
Now a father of two, the ex-Council staffer grew up in Deanwood, graduated from D.C. Public Schools, and considers himself a third-generation Washingtonian. (At least “technically,” he notes. Although his parents moved away from the District, his grandparents are from here.) In his twenties, Fisher returned to D.C. from Hampton University, in Virginia, where he earned an undergraduate degree in business, to attend Catholic University’s law school. He’s lived in his current house since 2004 and frequently got to work with Kenner as Alexander’s chief of staff.
The Ward 7 councilmember characterizes Fisher as “even-keeled.” “If I would go off the handle and get too excited, he would keep me balanced,” says Alexander, who knew Fisher’s family and met him through community activism.
It may seem odd that the Bowser administration charged a Ward 7 resident with coordinating its sister ward’s most important project, but Fisher says he’s had connections there since childhood, with family living a few blocks from the campus. Besides, it’s for all of D.C., “a destination where people from the other side of the river are coming to Ward 8 because there’s something there for them to do, to be entertained, to shop, to dine, and everything,” he says.
Insofar as he has one, Fisher’s mantra for the project appears to be “opportunity, opportunity, opportunity”—a word he used every other minute during an interview, referring both to the position he’s taken and to the larger potential for economic development at St. Elizabeths East. Day-to-day, he works with the District’s executive agencies that have a role in the project, utilities companies (like Pepco), the developer, and residents.
Fisher is also responsible for envisioning what the redevelopment’s second phase will look like, and hopes to finalize “a framework” within the next few months. “We want this to be a technology- and arts-focused destination” that could entail an incubator space, free WiFi across the campus, and a tech firm’s headquarters, he says. “That’s something I’m really going to be aggressive about: attracting somebody to the neighborhood, to make them realize the potential they have.”
There’s good reason to be conscientious about that aspect of the project. Fisher’s home ward was supposed to get two Walmarts—one at Skyland, one at Capitol Gateway—before the company pulled out earlier this year. Although the composition of St. Elizabeths’ retail hasn’t been set yet, Fisher says the administration is open to big-box stores like Target and to local outlets as long as they’re the “right fit” and demonstrate “a true interest” in locating in Ward 8. “They have to see the value in the community, they have to feel it, they have to talk to the people, and that’s the biggest key,” Fisher says. (So not Walmart, right? “Not at this time, I don’t think so.”)
Beyond leasing space to businesses that will benefit the District, perhaps the most significant challenge for Fisher is ensuring that St. Elizabeths is inclusive of its closest neighbors. Some worry that the project will accelerate gentrification and raise the cost of living east of the river despite the hundreds of jobs it’s expected to produce—like what happened in Chinatown after Verizon Center was constructed, or Columbia Heights in the era of DC USA. In light of this, outgoing Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have proposed legislation that would create a “displacement risk zone” around the site and boost tax credits claimed by residents who live in that area.
Meanwhile, as an analysis of census data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found in September, poverty has worsened east of the Anacostia River since 2007, with a poverty rate three times higher there than in the rest of the city. Fisher, who “used to look at [land-disposition agreements] for fun” when he worked for the Council, says the community has been “very supportive” of the redevelopment, though there are residents who bring up gentrification “from time to time.”
“It’s not going to push anybody out,” Fisher insists. “There’s nobody on that property right now. It’s just going to help the surrounding communities improve.” Would “Mayor for Life” and former Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry have been pleased with the direction the site’s headed? “Absolutely,” he says. “He saw the beginning of this, so we’re going to keep pushing it along.”
“St. Elizabeths can be its own city within a city,” Fisher adds. “I don’t think it can get any better than that.”