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UPDATE, 12:45 p.m. – At this morning’s Council legislative meeting, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry took the NCPC’s advice, voluntarily striking language from the Comprehensive Plan that would have encouraged mixed-use development on the west side of Martin Luther King Avenue. The amendment to the amendments states:
It is inconsistent with the plans approved by both the District and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) for the Saint Elizabeths campus, which require all of the retail in this area to be located on the District’s east campus side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. Even though the provision only encourages and does not require retail on the west side, and even though the provision acknowledges that the retail would have to be outside security barriers, NCPC states that the U.S. General Services Administration is still concerned about the inconsistency of the policy with the plans. Also, security barriers will likely be inside the historic wall and there is not enough space for retail development either outside the wall or between the wall and the interior security barriers.
As far as the 173-acre east campus goes, the District expects to issue a request for proposals this year to construct four million square feet of office space and workforce housing, which could include retail. But any prospective developer would likely need public money to make it happen, and at this point, there’s a lot of competition.
For District residents watching the massive development of a new Department of Homeland Security headquarters on the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8, the hope has always been clear: Not only construction jobs on the front end, but a revitalized commercial district in Congress Heights, including retail that thousands of new DHS employees would patronize during the day.
To foster that kind of development, the D.C. Council passed an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would change the zoning on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue at St. Elizabeths’ west campus to allow commercial and residential uses, while providing exceptions for historic resources. A key phrase: “Mixed use development, including retail and service uses, should be promoted along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, should face the street and should be open to the public, other than security barriers and perimeters that may otherwise be required.”
But the National Capital Planning Commission, which will review all the comprehensive plan amendments at its meeting this week, thinks that would be “contrary to the federal interest.” In its recommendation to the Commission, staff reviewers determined:
“The provision of retail at a depth of 200 feet along the Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue frontage of the west campus would be inconsistent with the Master Plan and would require demolition of all or parts of the historic wall and portions of several historic buildings within the campus as well as conflict with the Department of Homeland Security’s Level 5 Security requirements.”
Therefore, with the General Services Administration in agreement, they recommended that the language regarding mixed-use development be dropped. (Although the fact that the District’s Comprehensive Plan amendment specifically allows for preservation suggests that security requirements are really the biggest issue here).
Disallowing retail and residential development directly across from St. Elizabeths doesn’t mean that existing Congress Heights businesses won’t still benefit from the infusion of new people. Private sector offices may still decide to locate in a new business district several blocks up MLK Avenue. But how many of the 14,000 new DHS employees will walk more than a few minutes from their offices to grab lunch or run errands?
St. Elizabeths is the biggest federal government project since the construction of the Pentagon, and could end up looking similar, as a largely isolated monolith which people arrive at and leave in cars, rather than something that breeds street life and integrates with the surrounding community (which both NCPC and the GSA have prioritized in downtown D.C.).
That would be some serious wasted potential.