Where, oh where, to put a new barracks? (U.S. Marine Corps)

It’s not a problem Thomas Jefferson could have foreseen when he identified a site on the southeastern shoreline of the new Capitol for a new military base: That the city would grow so dense, and the security risk to enlisted men so severe, that the Navy would have to find new space in the already-crowded surrounding neighborhood to put its barracks.

That’s the tricky position that the Marines have found themselves in over the past several years. Their Bachelor Enlisted Quarters at 8th and I SE, a.k.a. Building 20, is now too cramped—infantrymen now need more gear, making the rooms 25 percent smaller than the military standard. And more importantly, it’s out of compliance with the post-September 11th security regulations, which require such facilities to be separated from the street—and even any entrance to underground parking—by 82 feet.

Well, turns out it’s a little hard to find space for a 150,000-square-foot facility with a moat of land around it in quickly-developing near Southeast. Sites currently occupied by an elementary school athletic field, public housing complex, and a planned office/apartment development were proposed and quickly rejected. A proposal to locate the barracks on a community garden raised a storm of protest, with even Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton weighing in on behalf of the park.

I’m coming pretty late to this story—JDLand has been covering the Community Integrated Master Plan (CIMP) process for almost a year now—but got up to speed at a forum Tuesday night put on by the Marines to gather input for their next steps. The North Hall of Eastern Market was well-stocked with khaki, supplied with coffee and cookies, and awash in handouts, powerpoints, and display boards. The overall impression was of a Marine Corps on the defensive, attempting to reassure a nervous citizenry that they could find a place without displacing anyone, reminding them that nothing like the CIMP process had been undertaken before.

“We think we’ve been 100% honest, and we want to continue in that building of trust,” said Colonel David Spasojevich.

And just in case the community doubted the need for the relocation of the barracks, Colonel Paul Montanes shamed all skeptics by invoking the specter of terrorism. “Remember, we’re talking about peoples’ sons and daughters,” he said, in somber tones. “Young kids. But we can take care of them, and not adversely affect the community.”

To their credit, rather than simply asking the federal government to take properties through the power of eminent domain, the Marines have decided to play nice. They’ve now written off all public sites, looking instead at private parcels and land they already own. They’re also acquiescing to a demand that no land be taken off the District tax rolls; any new building would continue to be owned privately and leased back to the Marines.

And at this point, Virginia Avenue Park looks safe, since the proposal for the “Exxon site” carefully builds around it. That seems to have placated the park’s defenders, who initially thought their veggies were doomed. “What we were concerned about was that we were facing the marines,” said Sam Fromartz. “And you don’t win against the Marines.”

Barracks Row Main Street favors that site, as well as one right next door known as Square 929, believing that putting the barracks in that vicinity would be more likely to encourage the revitalization of 8th street below the freeway. The other option is land owned by Marine Barracks Washington at 7th and L Street SE, which would require relocation of the planned Cappers Community Center, long-delayed because of financing.

After the Marines finally do settle on a site, the question becomes: What to do with the old building? Security regulations will allow the Marines to use 25 percent of the space—it’s slated for use by the Marine Institute—and they’ve decided to make the rest available for public use. Residents of 9th street, directly abutting Building 20, say they’d strongly oppose any street-level retail or restaurant uses there (it’s noisy enough on 8th Street!).  Some sort of childcare facility is a strong contender, in part because of the need created by 6,000 new employees at the federal Department of Transportation on M Street SE.

The timeline’s still quite leisurely, though. They’ll have to receive Congressional approval to do a public-private partnership for the land, and won’t be issuing a request for proposal for another year. In the mean time, they have the opportunity to contemplate an interesting idea: What does a modern urban barracks look like? Can you imagine a military installation next to a community garden, with street level retail all around the edges? What a step forward from the existing facility, which presents the community with just a blank brick face. That’s something even Montanes can understand.

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on the Navy Yard,” he said, “But when I walk along that brick wall of the Navy Yard, it just makes me angry.”

Concept for Square 929/930, view to the Southeast.