Redeveloping the St. Elizabeths Hospital Campus: Opportunity and Complexity on a Hill

September 1, 2003


Washington, D.C. should soon be able to redevelop the St. Elizabeths Hospital complex, a sprawling, historically significant and strategically placed 356-acre site overlooking the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers in the city’s southeast quadrant. However, success will require a comprehensive planning approach with wide-scale citizen involvement, cooperation from the federal establishment, and a sense of urgency on the part of city leaders to get it done. Washington needs a concerted and sustained effort by all involved to create this new neighborhood on a hill.

A new neighborhood could soon grace the District of Columbia. It would command a breathtaking view of much of the city as well as a large swath of Northern Virginia. It would stand high atop a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. It would lie minutes away from an on-ramp to Interstate 295 and a short drive from Capitol Hill and downtown Washington. A Metro stop would be found a short walk away. Some of the buildings in this neighborhood would likely be newly constructed; others would be renovated historic structures. All would be in an urban setting with considerable open space interspersed.

Where is this marvelous spot? It is the 356-acre St. Elizabeths Hospital complex. Now largely vacated, it lies between the Historic Anacostia and Congress Heights neighborhoods in Southeast Washington.

Think of what it would mean if this large section of southeast Washington was turned into a thriving, mixed income, mixed residential, commercial, and office environment. The benefits would flow not only to the struggling neighborhoods that surround it but to the city and the region as a whole.

While it is hard to overstate the site’s potential, given its scale and location, the obstacles to realizing this vision are daunting.

Multiple ownership fragments the site. Control is shared by the federal and District governments, and by several agencies within each. What is more, the entire 356-acre parcel has been designated as a national historic landmark, making redevelopment options much more complicated and expensive. Add in that the most historic of the buildings on the property are in the worst condition, and it becomes clear the cost of redeveloping the site will be high. It will take real skill for the District to sort out all of the interested parties, deal with the many barriers, and realize the great potential this site presents.

An enormous opportunity for the city could slip away if the federal government fails to cooperate and the District’s Mayor and City Council do not act decisively and with real vision. Now is the time for both federal and District leaders to make sure that the redevelopment of the St. Elizabeths property really happens.