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Tech executives get a high-end tour of a low-end neighborhood.
There’s a reason they invented the safari suit. Right now, on a summer afternoon, that reason is written all over Michael A. Daniels’ face. After a tour-bus ride through teeming streets, Daniels and his group finally reached their exotic stop-off point. Then the chair of the board of Internet-domain-name registrar Network Solutions Inc. hiked across an expansive lawn to see the featured attraction—the view from a bluff overlooking the river. And now, underneath a navy-blue business suit, Daniels looks hot as the blazes.
Daniels, who’s lived in Virginia for the last 30 years, is visiting the Anacostia overlook at St. Elizabeths Hospital for the first time. Two cabbage butterflies dance above unmowed grasses on the slope below. A pair of locals have climbed over the guardrail onto the grassy incline, where they are enjoying a lunchtime picnic. The look on his face makes it clear that the high-powered local executive is a long way from his Old Dominion home.
“Gosh,” drawls Daniels, surveying the foreign landscape. “I’m impressed with what I’ve seen.”
Daniels is no overdressed tourist. He’s wearing that suit because this particular tour is official business. A silver-haired, bespectacled multimillionaire, the former director of the Northern Virginia High Technology Council is participating in the first “Suburban High-Tech Tour of Anacostia,” organized by the Washington Metropolitan Dialogue, a pro-growth community group. Along with a busload of others, Daniels is spending his afternoon being carefully escorted through the alien territory of what developers and city planners call “East of the River.”
At 10 o’clock this morning, Daniels got on a bus at the McLean Hilton. He and the other high-tech executives, real estate agents, and developers in the group listened to a narrative from Anacostia-Congress Heights Partnership chair Jim Banks as the bus drove up Mississippi Avenue to the decrepit but imposing entrance to St. Elizabeths Hospital.
In the great hall of the hospital’s Hagen Building, the executives were treated to chicken-pesto wraps and brownies made by Imani Cafe, an Anacostia restaurant—and an earful of enthusiasm about how Anacostia can provide employees, green fields, and reusable office spaces to the techies of Northern Virginia, if only they would get off their highways and take a look around.
If middle America is “flyover” to bicoastal snobs, then Anacostia is “drive-through” to city-center and suburban locals. Major traffic arteries crisscross and surround the neighborhood—I-295, South Capitol Street—taking motorists from the city to Prince George’s County or Virginia. But people don’t stop. “I’d never been to St. Elizabeths in my life,” says Brian McVay, a senior managing director with commercial real estate brokers Cushman & Wakefield. Today’s tour is designed to change that: to encourage those who simply drive through to stop and smell the roses—or the profits.
“I want to show you one of the most spectacular views and places in the city,” Andrew Altman, director of the Mayor’s Office of Planning, told those assembled in Hagen Hall. When the other speakers were done, he brought them outside for this walk on the St. Elizabeths grounds, past butterfly bushes and the “Detached Nurses Unit” building, to the bluff overlooking the city. Even to the mayor’s representative, Anacostia remains very much a place to show people something in the distance—a beautiful, faraway vision.
“We’re here to look at the potential of East of the River,” Greg Irish, director of the Department of Employment Services, told the lunchers. The mayor himself, scheduled to speak over lunch, was a no-show at the event.
“This community has the greatest potential in D.C. The green spaces, there’s land, places that can be developed,” Irish exhorted his guests. “We have the people to employ who have potential, who can do just about anything.”
City boosters, of course, hope the tech tourists will buy more than lunch east of the Anacostia. Northern Virginia has an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 unfilled positions in the high-tech sector alone, and if tech execs can be induced to recruit trainees from job-poor Anacostia, they say, both could benefit. But first the NoVa millionaires need more familiarity with the neighborhood and its residents, 98 percent of whom come from minority groups. The suburban techies also need to not be scared by a community with a sometimes dicey reputation.
“Working in the high-tech community in NoVa, we never cross the bridge,” said Michael Skigan of Science Applications International Corp., a $5.5 billion employee-owned tech firm, at the lunch. “But look out the window,” he says, gesturing outside Hagen Hall. “This doesn’t look like Anacostia….We drove down Mississippi Avenue and saw what look like suburban developments. It’s very impressive. It’s very enlightening for those of us who don’t cross the bridge very often.”
That’s just the reaction Metropolitan Dialogue wanted. But whether it will translate into investments and jobs is less clear. Network Solutions is in the process of looking for a new home for its 1,000 workers, a campus where all employees, currently scattered among four sites, can be brought together.
St. Elizabeths, which will be available as soon as its mentally ill residents are dispersed to community-based treatment programs in the next few years, meets that requirement. It might seem like a perfect match—a campus in need of a new tenant and a company in need of a campus. But of the eight to 10 sites Network Solutions has narrowed its search to, none are even in D.C., let alone Anacostia.
Although McVay hopes that the redevelopment of St. Elizabeths will “create a whole new environment east of the river,” the visitors on the tour mainly say that they have come to be good citizens—not to search for sites for any specific projects.
But that doesn’t dissuade the enthusiastic tour guides from their dream of spreading the dot-com wealth. “This is just an appetizer,” says tour organizer Brenda Richardson. “This wasn’t a one-time deal.” Next up on her agenda is another foreign exchange: a tour of Northern Virginia for Anacostia community leaders. CP