A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?
The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers’ Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.
The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.
The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.
What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?
This isn’t the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home’s land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what’s now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children’s National Medical Center.
National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.
That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers’ Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.
Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It’s the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.
In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.
The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the “parkway/memorial,” the “circle,” the “four corners.”
It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.
On the other hand, if there’s at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH’s property and the intersection.
While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University’s land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.
How can people get here?
Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.
The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan
These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.
If that doesn’t happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.
DC doesn’t have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what’s being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.
Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it’s time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.
A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.
Will governments be ready?
This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:
We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. … We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. … With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that “the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment,” but added, “While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study.”
GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.
Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is “starting the consultant selection process,” so it’s still in the early stages as well.
Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program. The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we’ll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today’s cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.