By Jana Curry
In October of 2012, city officials unveiled the redesign of St. Elizabeth’s East Campus. A $5 million “Gateway Pavilion” was planned for what was a weedy, fenced- in plaza fronting Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE in Congress Heights, which should be completed at the end of August 2013. Some were calling it a “dramatic new centerpiece” which officials said would have a multipurpose structure that offers an outdoor recreation center and performance space on top and a community gathering space below, providing a venue for casual dining, a farmers’ market and other weekend and after-hours community, cultural and arts events.
The project is a collaboration of internationally awarded and recognized teams that include the construction firm KADCON, the engineering firm Robert Silman Associates and architects Davis Brody Bond. These developers are known for contributions of renowned landmarks such as the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, the reconstruction of D.C.’s Eastern Market, and the forthcoming National Museum of African American History in Culture.
In Mayor Gray’s Bi-Weekly Press Conference on Wednesday, May 29th, 2013, he launched the construction of the Gateway Pavilion on St. Elizabeth’s East. “Today kicks off the construction that will help us to achieve economic development goal in terms of providing jobs, services, as well as amenities for the near by residents and others,” said Gray during the ground breaking.
The first group of 22 government agencies coming to St. Elizabeth’s by 2016 will be the US Coast Guard Headquarters, who will be located on the West Campus, a high security campus. Gray explains that the arrival off federal employees in a few months, specifically August 31st, will bring 3700 employees.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton, who has been very involved and vocal with the St. Elizabeth’s redevelopment at the Capitol, spoke at the press conference about one of the key concepts in building the US Coast Guard Headquarters. “This building will not have the usual amenities of federal buildings and I made sure of that. There was a method to my madness. I was looking for a place for the Department of Homeland Security, but I was also looking for a way to jump start the new Martin Luther King Jr. Ave because I knew the history of the city is that when federal employees come into any neighborhood amenities always follow. It’s a very smart idea to give the community and give the employees a virtual taste of what is to come.”
Congresswoman Holmes-Norton is specifically talking about the fact that within the US Coast Guard Headquarters, there will be a cafeteria that only accommodates 300 employees. Which means, of that the 3700 employees coming in August, 3400 employees will have to come off campus and be apart of what will soon be going on in the community.
The Gateway Pavilion, Gray says, “has been a centerpiece of our vision to revive ward 7 and ward 8 on the “East End” of the city.” It has become a huge part of the economic plan for the city. There will be new restaurants, new grocery stores, affordable housing which has all been put on a $100 million budget to create new opportunities for the community.
Congresswoman Holmes- Norton simply expresses that this pavilion, which allows various types of retail and food vendors, is just what has been missing on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave; “what you are seeing is just the beginning of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave becoming a real destination.”
The mayor lists some of the things that will be brought here by the development on St. Elizabeth’s East. He says, “It will bring mixed generational job training to our neighborhoods here, it will become a center for exploring new opportunities and infrastructure development, intelligence, energy, and of course green practices which is a huge part of what we are doing.” The design includes numerous green elements, including a rainwater harvest system to supply irrigation and water for restrooms, as well as recycled or renewed materials such as canvas, burlap, “grasscrete,” and reclaimed wood.
Mayor Gray continues to say that there will be a market place of “ideas and innovation and commercialization,” and a place to connect our academic community with the innovation center that has been planned with Smartben, Silman, and Microsoft. There will be an Innovation Hub that will combine business, research, and higher education in an interactive technology-focused community.
The development of this Innovation hub is a key component to Mayor Gray’s Five Year Economic Development Strategy, which identifies the creation of a shared campus for academic institutions and technology firms. This Hub will be approximately 500,000 square feet within St. Elizabeth’s East, of which 250,000 square feet will be dedicated to education, civic and research uses; as well as additional development which will include housing, retail, and other amenities. The Master Plan contemplates that St. Elizabeth’s East will ultimately comprise over 5 million square feet on 183 acres.
The objectives in developing an Innovation Hub at St. Elizabeth’s East are to spur the creation of new technology-related businesses and jobs, to create economic opportunity at all skill levels for residents of both Ward 8 and the city as a whole, and to accelerate the diversification of Washington D.C.’s economy, reducing reliance on the federal government.
At-Large Councilmember and DC Democratic Party Chair, Anita Bonds also spoke and said, “this is history making for District of Columbia, a new approach for making it clear that not only are we here, but we are here ready to do business and to make a difference in the broader community.”
One key element to the redevelopment is “pop-up retail.” Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development explains the concept. “Popup retail is a way retail can go in a test a market,” he says. He goes on to say, “If you are able to show a strong balance sheet and the ability to deliver a product to our community we will lease to you a $1 a month, for 6 months, and a site right down the street near the train station.” Hoskins wants retailers to test the market by making it inexpensive for potential retailers. D.C. government will provide water and other services, Internet, and will make sure that the facility is secure because they want retailers to test this community by removing all barriers in order to see if their product can really sell in the community.
Mary Cuthbert, ANC Commissioner and Ward 8 resident, who also spoke at the press conference said, “I’m excited about the amenities coming because my steps are getting shorter and I’m tired of spending my money in Virginia. I can walk a couple of blocks and spend my money right here in my own community.”
But are other residents excited about the redevelopment too? Clarence Burrell, a Ward a resident, said, “As long as [government employees] respect what’s already here as change, advancements and new things come to the area, that’s welcomed.” He continues to say, “that means new projects, new possible opportunities for everybody in the area; but as long as its not a push to really change the demographics of the area too much and not really push us out either, I’m with that.”
Other residents in Ward 8 like Burrell are also a little skeptical about the changes happening in their community. Sherita Washington commented on the redevelopment saying, “I think they are just going to push people out. Once they bring all those buildings around here, most of use may not even be able to afford it here anymore.”
Williams also says, “I just hope when they do the redevelopment that there will be some job opportunities for people around this neighborhood because the homeless and helpless are what we are. I hope the redevelopment is for the community, not just for personal gain or [the government’s] interest.” Even though there are some doubts in many residents, they all agree that Southeast is due for a big change.
Mayor Gray pledged to make good on a decade of hopes that St. Elizabeth’s development would deliver an economic jolt to the surrounding neighborhood, particularly through employment, which is something very important to the residents. Mayor Gray states, “Those who want opportunities and jobs will have the opportunities… that’s a promise.”