Ever since the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was first seriously considered for closure in 2005, D.C. officials and developers have hungrily eyed the closed-off chunk of Ward 4 as prime real estate that could accommodate a transformative project.
Now, this vision is growing ever closer to reality — more than a decade after the Army first recommended closing the troubled hospital, more than six years after it actually shut down, and nearly a year after the District government took over 66 acres of the historic campus.
With D.C. planning and preservation officials having already approved a general outline of the development, now the project team has reached the stage of wrangling over the specifics — the new buildings’ facade materials, the best types of landscaping and whether a new apartment house should conceal its structural columns.
Broadly, the Parks at Walter Reed project will take an estimated 10 to 15 years to complete construction of its full 3.1 million square feet. The project team — a collaboration of development companies Hines, Urban Atlantic and Triden — ultimately hopes to provide about 2,000 housing units; more than 200,000 square feet of retail space; more than 700,000 square feet of offices; space for schools, medical research and other public amenities; public parkland; and new street connections to the surrounding communities.
This development will be located along Georgia Avenue between Aspen and Fern streets NW, and along Aspen from Georgia to 16th Street. The rear of the Walter Reed campus, around the corner of 16th and Alaska Avenue NW, will become a foreign missions complex managed by the U.S. State Department. The D.C. project includes a mix of new construction and adaptive reuse of the campus’s existing historic buildings.
Last month, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board focused on the former — a proposed seven-story mixed-use building that would be bordered by 12th, 13th, Dahlia and Elder streets NW. This building would be part of the campus’s planned “town center,” with dense residential and retail activity, on land currently occupied by the massive 1970s hospital building. As proposed, “Building I/J” would have about 300 apartment units and 60,000 square feet of retail space — including a supermarket at 12th and Dahlia — above a two-level parking garage, which would be repurposed from the old hospital.
“This is our main retail street,” architect John Torti said. “It’s where we hope to create the energy of a live/work/play environment.”
Torti, whose Torti Gallas firm was also responsible for the popular Bethesda Row, said he hopes to achieve similar success at Walter Reed — which has generally been closed off to the public for decades.
“Could you imagine the day the fences come down?” Torti said at the hearing. “I mean, this has been a history of, ‘Don’t come in unless you go through the guard.’ So it’s always been in my mind that the day this place opens up, first thing we’re going to experience is a lot of hesitancy — ‘Do I dare go there?’
“And then hopefully everyone will feel welcome to come,” Torti continued, “to experience this myriad of parks and also this centerpiece that has the retail draw for the neighborhood and neighborhoods beyond. So the notion of inviting pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles into this place is going to be very magic when it becomes public rather than an institution.”
A key milestone toward that goal is expected this year, with the planned demolition of the 1970s hospital and some infrastructure work that will eventually support the new Parks at Walter Reed community. And although the Historic Preservation Review Board requested some tweaks to the architecture of Building I/J, members had no fundamental objections. They’re due to review a revised design and plans for another Walter Reed building later this month.
With many Walter Reed developments remaining more than a decade away, a Hines representative said at the Aug. 3 preservation board hearing that the development team is prioritizing the projects in the northeastern section of the campus that comprises the “town center” area.
“We are trying to create a front to the site facing Georgia Avenue rather than starting deeper in the site and bringing it toward Georgia Avenue,” a Hines representative said at the hearing. “We want to create the place first with the plaza, the retail and the surrounding buildings that compose the town center, and then move deeper into the site as it develops.”
Torti said the town center will represent a major change for the broader community surrounding the Walter Reed campus.
“This will be a magnet,” he said. “It’s got to be. That neighborhood really has no existing competing energy center like this one will be.”