Do not underestimate the power of charismatic renderings in getting people on board with a development vision. That’s what’s been missing at the St. Elizabeths east campus in Ward 8, where the District envisions a mixed-use urban center full of tech companies, educational institutions, retail, parks, new residents, a new “transit center” next to the Congress Heights Metro station, and even a mini-farm. The new master plan for the 180-acre site includes detailed descriptions of how the various pieces fit together, which historic buildings are to be preserved, where large new buildings could go, and how they should look.
Next up: The Historic Preservation Review Board, which will look at the plan at its meeting on Thursday. The staff report is generally approving, but warns that placing seven-story buildings along the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue frontage is “inherently problematic” because it would obscure views of the historic buildings in the campus’ interior (nine-story buildings are contemplated for the parcels closest to the Metro station). After that, the whole site will have to have a formal zoning plan approved at the Zoning Commission.
Then comes the hard part: Finding tenants. The master plan divides the site into 18 parcels, which developers will claim through a solicitation process. So far, an inkjet manufacturing company has signed on for a couple buildings. The District is hoping that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will eventually locate there—-on the site of a building that currently houses a men’s homeless shelter, which will be demolished—-and has been talking to big tech companies like Microsoft, Siemens, and General Dynamics about creating a Johns Hopkins-like “innovation center.” For optimal synergy, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development is also working hard to attract the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology office, which is currently housed at the agency’s Nebraska Avenue campus.
The most exciting near-term development? Getting rid of the fence that currently surrounds the campus, finally opening it up to the sidewalk. It’ll be a nice contrast to the brick wall guarding the secure Coast Guard campus on the other side of the street.