Mayor Vince Gray speaks at last summer's ribbon-cutting on the Coast Guard headquarters.
Mayor Vince Gray speaks at last summer's ribbon-cutting on the Coast Guard headquarters.

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This afternoon, a group of local and federal VIPs—-from Mayor Vince Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)—-gathered at the St. Elizabeths West Campus to cut the ribbon on the new Coast Guard headquarters.

The campus is set to house 3,700 Coast Guard employees, who will move in over the next few months; the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to follow sometime thereafter, though its buildings on the former mental hospital grounds still have quite a ways to go. I previewed the site back in November, and the Coast Guard buildings impressed with their modern feel, great views, and vast green roof.

“With the ribbon-cutting of the magnificent new headquarters, today is a historic day for the Coast Guard, which has never had its own home,” Norton said in a statement. “In planning the DHS complex, and the Coast Guard headquarters in particular, we have taken the steps to help the DHS complex be a part of the revival of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, as federal agencies have done in other areas, such as NoMa and the Capitol Riverfront.”

But is that really going to happen? NoMa and Capitol Riverfront have both seen booms as federal offices have integrated themselves into the heart of the neighborhoods. At St. Elizabeths, that’ll take quite a bit more work.

First off, the two neighborhoods between which the St. Es West Campus is sandwiched—-Anacostia and Congress Heights—-don’t exactly have sterling reputations among nonresidents, and they have very little in the way of food and retail options. Second, the campus sits between the Anacostia Freeway and the Suitland Parkway, making it very easy for employees to get in and out without having to spend any time at all in the surrounding neighborhoods. And third, the Coast Guard already has a commuter culture: According to DHS’ Carol Mitten, about three-quarters of the Coast Guard employees coming to St. Es currently drive alone to work.

There are already some safeguards in place to prevent Coast Guarders from treating their new headquarters as a drive-through. The West Campus will have only one parking space for every four full-time DHS/Coast Guard employees at St. Es—-and many of those spaces will be set aside for car- and van-pools. The Transportation Management Plan for the campus sets a target of just 15 percent of Coast Guarders driving alone to work. The hope is that many will take the Metro to Anacostia or Congress Heights (and possibly a DHS shuttle from there)—-forcing them to interact at least somewhat with the nearby neighborhoods.

Additionally, the Coast Guard cafeteria will have only 260 seats, in addition to a 50-seat snack shop. Again, the hope is that workers will leave the West Campus to get lunch—-possibly in the adjacent neighborhoods, though more likely at the food trucks of the temporary Gateway Pavilion across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in the East Campus. That’s better than staying put at the Coast Guard headquarters, but it’s unclear how much it’ll really do for Ward 8, or whether the Gateway Pavilion will serve the neighborhood or just the feds.

We won’t know for sure what St. Es means for Ward 8 until the East Campus’ mixed-use development gets underway. At best, it’ll be a new employment and retail anchor that will link Anacostia and Congress Heights and leverage the daytime population provided by the Coast Guard and DHS to give the area an economic jolt. At worst, the much-heralded DHS complex won’t be all that different from nearby Bolling Air Force Base, so isolated from the community that it might as well not be there.

Photo via @mayorvincegray