Ward 8 Investments Met with Wary Optimism

Construction workers, Ward 8 residents and city officials participate in a ceremonial demolition to kick off Phase One development of St. Elizabeth's East.

Eric Falquero

As D.C. undergoes a physical and economic transformation to become a city where millennials and young entrepreneurs utilize new and repurposed urban resources, the revival of the 180-acre former psychiatric hospital on St. Elizabeth’s east campus in Southeast has become emblematic of the effort and discussion surrounding that transformation. Cutting-edge proposals for design and technology at St. Elizabeth’s have flooded in, but so have questions about how the changes will impact the site’s surrounding community.

This was illustrated in real-time at the project’s ceremonial demolition in mid-February, kicking off Phase One development of the site.

Mayor Muriel Bowser addressed the gathered crowd of city officials, community members and press. “It has been a hallmark of this administration to—”

“—Gentrify all eight wards!” interjected Schyla Poindexter-Moore over the mayor’s speech.

“—invest in all eight wards,” Bowser finished.

Members of the audience murmured as the mayor continued to talk about jobs and progress. Some mocked or dismissed the protestors. Others could be heard explaining how property taxes and landlord’s income expectations tend to rise when an area is invested in and becomes more desirable.

Poindexter-Moore, an activist with local organization Empower DC, and one fellow protestor stood defiantly holding a banner that read “Stop Displacement, Don’t Move!!”

There have been efforts to engage the Congress Heights community in design workshops to better understand residents’ needs and address their concerns since the St. Elizabeth’s master planning process began years ago.  Yet, to many, the computer generated renderings paint a futuristic picture that resembles gentrification that has occurred elsewhere throughout the District.

A rendered image of the new sports arena.
A rendered image of the new sports arena. | Courtesy of StElizabethsEast.com

At a recent community meeting hosted by development partner Events DC, neighbors voiced concerns that the revitalization of St. Elizabeth’s might lead to a familiar feeling of being left behind. One Ward 8 neighbor said that many District residents have been feeling “misplaced, displaced, and replaced” by the city’s recent multimillion dollar developments.

The St. Elizabeth’s East plans aim to restore and rejuvenate the aesthetic identity of the campus, which has contributed to a distinct character in Southeast. The old psychiatric facility has begun to show signs of life throughout its revival. Since the opening of a modern hospital facility at the edge of the east campus in 2010, the D.C. Council has approved further redevelopment of the historic facilities. Because the campus is a National Historic Landmark, future development there must attempt to preserve 16 existing buildings on the site.

The east campus is expected to be transformed into a commercial and residential district, including 60 townhomes, 250 mixed-income apartments; a 171,000-square-foot office building with 47,000 square feet of integrated retail; a retail courtyard; and 100 underground parking spaces, according to a press release. Many community members have found it hard to believe that this proposal will complement the culturally historic and diverse Southeast neighborhood.

“We want Congress Heights to be a destination, not just St. E’s,” said another neighbor at the Events DC community meeting. A proposed 5000-seat arena and practice facility for the Wizards and Mystics was symbolic of that concern. While Randy Boe, the executive vice president for Monumental Sports, asserted that the arena would “bring a lot of value to the neighborhood,” not all of the community members were immediately convinced. The primary fear was that such a major development might risk leaving the rest of the neighborhood behind.

While Phase One development will stretch on for the next two years, a much more tangible benefit for Congress Heights residents to latch onto is jobs. The development will result in approximately 9,000 new jobs. Training opportunities and workshop demonstration events will give neighbors access to these opportunities.

Joaquin McPeek, the Director of Communications at the Office for Planning and Economic Development, said in an e-mail that the partnership with Events DC and Monumental Sports will “produce more than 600 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs for both the arena and Phase One infrastructure of St. Elizabeth’s East, with priority given to Ward 8 residents.”

Part of the historic St. Elizabeth's Campus.
Part of the historic St. Elizabeth’s Campus. | Courtesy of StElizabethsEast.com

For all the talk and promises of community interaction, the road to revitalization has been bumpy. While McPeek said that construction jobs will give precedence to local community members, it appears that this has not always been the case. In 2011, during the beginning stages of the St. Elizabeth redevelopment, a protest group called DC Jobs or Else rallied throughout the Congress Heights neighborhood to shed light upon workforce injustice. Clark Construction Company, who is a leading player in this development, was accused of hiring more than half of its workers from outside of D.C. for the reconstruction of St. Elizabeth’s hospital campus. Five years later, people still seem to be wary of these promises, which are deemed a priority.

One construction worker and Ward 8 resident of 25 years stood at the February demolition ceremony to prove otherwise. “Prior to this I had to go outside of the District of Columbia to find work,” he said. “I had to travel to Baltimore or deep into Virginia. But now that I am working in D.C., it’s been a blessing.”

He described being trained in various new skills, including receiving a license to properly handle asbestos. To this man, Ward 8 has always had trouble with “dream sellers,” but this opportunity has kept him grounded and moving forward.

“You know, my mom lost her job last year. I’ve been able to take over the household so my mother won’t lose her house in Ward 8,” he said of his new job with pride, before introducing the mayor. “The house I grew up in.”

While St. Elizabeth’s appears to be a far cry from a project done purely in the public’s interest, developers are keenly pointing out how the revitalization will improve the quality of life in neighborhoods that have often languished while others in D.C. thrive.

“The St. Elizabeth’s East Master Plan and Design Guidelines is the result of a decade of assessment, outreach, analysis, and planning to address an historic campus that is one of the District’s largest underdeveloped sites and the future setting for wise land use, brand new infrastructure, sustainable development, historic revitalization, and open space,” McPeek said. “It is also the product of multiple contributions from community advisors whose invaluable guidance helped to crystallize this vision.”

The ongoing project at St. Elizabeth’s is unique in its scope and historical stature. As buildings continue to break ground, many in the neighborhood and elsewhere will be monitoring the process closely. With other plans like the 11th Street bridge project and a new child development center also in the works, the future of Ward 8 looks promising. But these efforts do little to diminish the uncertainty for many longtime residents of Southeast.

“You was on our side until you got a paycheck,” Poindexter-Moore shouted at those that tried to prevent her from disrupting the demolition ceremony.

Abby Hershberger contributed to this report.

Issues |Development|Gentrification

Region |Ward 8|Washington DC

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