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St. Elizabeths East could become a community hub, but it'll take time

In January 2003, then-Mayor Anthony Williams announced plans to reimagine St. Elizabeths East Campus as a new community hub. Over 10 years later, it's beginning to materialize, but the private investment and new opportunities neighbors were promised have yet to arrive.

The Pavilion at Saint Elizabeth's East awaits activation. All photos by the author.

Neighborhood residents, community leaders, and local business owners participated in the first planning process for the District-owned campus in Congress Heights. Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is doing it again. After decades of disinvestment in the area, his administration is building new schools, new recreation centers, and the St. Elizabeths Pavilion, a new community center that opened last year.

While a planned vendor market hasn't started yet, a series of temporary events have positioned the pavilion to become an established rental venue, says Catherine Buell, Executive Director of St. Elizabeths East. To attract activity to the site, the city opened a free ice slide, hosted a free performance by a Grammy-award winning R&B artist, held fitness classes and has drawn a line-up of popular food trucks.

"The Pavilion has been a success," says Buell, a resident of Historic Anacostia, noting that over 10,000 people from across the region have come to St. Elizabeths East, a former mental health institution that was previously closed to the public. "And they are comfortable here," she adds.

Confirming city officials' desire to make the Pavilion a family-friendly destination, on a recent weekend, its meeting space hosted a community organization, while in the next room a group of small children played games under adult supervision.

Rendering of what an active Pavilion might look like one day.

Officials admit there's still work to do. "There were areas we needed to do a better job of tending to," says Buell. "We knew starting up an enterprise was going to be hard, but we have developed and built up a dynamic brand."

Last month, Victor Hoskins, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, disclosed the city had prematurely terminated its relationship with a management company that the city had paid over $250,000 to assist with marketing, booking and event planning at the Pavilion. The next step will be soliciting "successful third-party rentals" that can begin making the Pavilion a place of commerce. "Vendors are interested," Buell affirms.

Elsewhere on the campus, redevelopment plans are slowly moving forward. St. Elizabeths East Chapel, where Mayor Williams first announced plans to redevelop the campus in 2003, could soon become the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, a business incubator that "will bridge the gap between the innovation field and local community" until a more permanent space is built. The permanent space, the 500,000-square-foot St. Elizabeth's Innovation Hub, can't proceed until 2016, when important infrastructure improvements are built.

In a press release, District officials said they "expect to create" a Demonstration Center with a "Digital Inclusion Center" with a state-of-the-art computer lab where residents can receive computer training, classrooms for job training and placement services, community meeting space, and "entrepreneurship and career conference areas." It should open this summer.

But the key phrase is "we expect to create." In conversations with community members in and around Congress Heights, many expressed a fatigue over the past decade in attending meetings and reading stories that foretold a new day of private investment and opportunity was round the corner. That day has yet to come.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Interestingly, in some of my earlier comments on various announced plans for St. E's I made points that the announced plans wouldn't work (like the retail pavilion).

I don't know if I should feel vindicated, because with experienced the city junked those plans and changed course based on the reality of the situation, or should I be upset that they wasted time and money in failing before they changed course.

It is interesting that they are capable of changing course as circumstances dictate.

by Richard Layman on Mar 13, 2014 2:34 pm • linkreport

I agree it will be slow going for a while. More employees moving in will help, but neighbors' fatigue is justified.

I actually haven't been on the campus since it was a mental health campus when I was working in social work.

by h st ll on Mar 13, 2014 8:18 pm • linkreport

The problem with St. E's as a hub is that it is somewhat disconnected from the other inhabitated areas and it is a distance away from those places, not to mention difficult to reach on foot or bicycle because it is uphill.

Building it up comes at the expense of the other extant areas, because there isn't enough activity demand to populate all those places. (E.g., Skyland poses a similar dilemma vis-a-vis the Congress Heights Marketplace and Good Hope Marketplace... 300,000 s.f. of new retail! means you need about 200,000 residents--roughly half of DC's current population--to support it.)

by Richard Layman on Mar 14, 2014 9:51 am • linkreport

In a way Richard I am reminded of your point that adjacent, more challenged neighborhood business districts won't start to significantly improve until there is more buildout in the still gentrifying business district. IE H Street NE --> Benning. HA ---> Congress Heights seems applicable as well.

by h st ll on Mar 14, 2014 10:08 am • linkreport

Have they begus Phase 1 of development identified in the Master Plan? Get the infrastructure in place. Get more activity and once there is a reason to visit, they will?

How's the metro development looking? I recall there was some talk of adding a green line stop between Anacostia and Congress Heights. Maybe the development should start at the metro and work its way to the rest of the campus.

by What abt the Metro on Mar 14, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

10,000 people over one of the worst winters ever? Sounds promising to me.

I was at the pavilion today and it was great to see a farmers market up and running with Whole Foods selling market quality food at surprisingly low prices. They had a decent turnout for the first day. Would love to see this every weekend so it gains in popularity.

This can be an amazing amenity for Ward 8 with a little patience, good weather, and positive PR. Can't wait for Broccoli Fest!

by Linda on Apr 5, 2014 7:19 pm • linkreport

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