We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Mark McDonald
A proposal called “The Parks at Walter Reed” won the bid to redevelop the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. into a 3 million-square-foot town center project. The plans from developers Hines Interests of Houston include residential units, retail, 20 acres of open space, and a Hyatt hotel and conference center, along with a commerce and science center operated by George Washington University and MIT. We explore the proposal and what it means for the neighborhood and the District.
- Muriel Bowser Democratic Candidate, Mayor of the District of Columbia; Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 4); Chair, Committee on Economic Development
- Michael Neibauer Reporter, Washington Business Journal
- Victor Hoskins Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, District of Columbia
MR. MARK MCDONALDFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Mark McDonald, WAMU's programming director, sitting in for Kojo. The Writers in Schools Project brings the work of popular authors to students, who then also get to meet those authors, including schools here in D.C. where the well-known writer, George Pelecanos, will pay a visit. But, first, a proposal called "The Parks at Walter Reid" won the bid to redevelop the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C.
MR. MARK MCDONALDDevelopers Hines Interests of Houston have big plans for the campus, including an arts district, a science innovation center, a hotel and conference center, along with shops and a mix of housing. But not, at this point, we understand, a Wegmans supermarket. Joining us, Victor Hoskins, who's the District's Deputy Mayer for Planning and Economic Development; Muriel Bowser, the council member for the District's Ward 4; and Mike Neibauer, who covers economic development, chambers of commerce, transportation and political affairs for the Washington Business Journal.
MR. MARK MCDONALDGood afternoon to all. Victor, let's start with you. How long has this been in the negotiation, and is this like a pivotal moment for the future of Walter Reed?
MR. VICTOR HOSKINSWell, it is a quite pivotal moment. Let me just start with, at the beginning of this year. Well, first of all, I want to thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about this project. It's one of the most important in the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton has done a tremendous job being a champion on this, and Councilman Bowser and her team have been tremendously supportive as we've gone through this process. We issued an RFP back in January of this year, and we've rapidly come to the point where, you know, we've got our short list.
MR. VICTOR HOSKINSThe team's presented to the community and everyone. And we selected -- this is actually quite rapid for a process in a project this size in the District of Columbia.
MCDONALDNow, you've worked with the developer who won the winning bid, you've worked with them before, right? They're known for the city center project.
HOSKINSYeah, actually, it's interesting. All the teams that did propose, we've worked with on some level at the District of Columbia, because, you know, the three that ended up at the front end of this were all involved in projects in the city at the present time. Hines is probably one of the most visible because it is the center city project right in downtown Washington D.C. And actually when it was started construction back in March of 2011 -- March, April of 2011 -- it was the largest project in the District and actually on the Eastern Seaboard at that time.
MCDONALDNow, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center has an amazing history going back almost a century. What was the goal of transforming it? What's the major goal of making what you're making here?
HOSKINSWell, there were two -- first of all, there were two things that we technically had to do. One, we had to do a reuse plan, which relates to the base-area realignment act of the U.S. I'm working with the Army so we had to do that. It's how you're going to use the site, what kind of jobs is it going to create, what provision are you going to make for affordable housing, what provision are you going to make for the homeless, what provision are you going to make for vets. So that is a requirement, that reuse plan. And then the other element was the small-area plan.
HOSKINSAnd in the small-area plan, there is a deep engagement with the neighborhood councils, with the community at large, and finding out what the community would like to see there. A couple of big things came out. One, the activation of Georgia Avenue. And through a negotiation process, we were actually given the opportunity to take all of the Georgia Avenue alignment. The second was to allow the community to come onto the site. So an openness, you know, having the ability to see the site is one thing; having the ability to engage it publicly is another.
HOSKINSSo that was a very important element. And then preserving of the most important and historic buildings on the site. And that was kind of a third goal.
MCDONALDWhy was this group chosen over the other two? What was the outstanding feature here?
HOSKINSThere were a couple of things. One, they really were in tune with the small-area plan and with the reuse plan. And that was demonstrated by the fact that they created a park-like environment that could be used by the public and accessed by the public easily. They also provided the largest amount of housing and the largest amount of affordable housing and senior housing, which was fantastic. It was one of the goals of the neighborhood. Third, they are going to provide a large format grocer and retailer and retailers for the site, and restaurants.
HOSKINSAnd also, they were very sensitive to the historic portions of the site in terms of preserving buildings and making sure that they met the requirements of the historic preservation.
MCDONALDGive us a little on some of the more exciting proposals, say, the arts district, the science innovation center. What's that about?
HOSKINSWell, the arts district is, you know, is something that is, you know, one of the things that we really enjoyed seeing in the proposal. One of the, you know, most of the cultural assets of the District of Columbia are in downtown. This pulls them into the neighborhood, sort of like, I know you're familiar with THEARC down in southeast D.C. and Ward 8. This is kind of bringing some of those artistic and creative elements right into the neighborhood of northwest, which is fantastic. And we're excited about that.
HOSKINSThe second was the science and innovation. They have MIT engaged and others in bringing science and innovation to the site.
MCDONALDSo you mentioned THEARC. They have the big, giant supermarket very close by there. What's the deal with the supermarket in this instance?
HOSKINSIn this instance, you know, we believe that Wegmans is going to continue to consider the site. But there have been expressions of interest from other -- and they've been kind of public, you know, Whole Foods and actually Giant and Safeway have all expressed, and Harris Teeter, they've all expressed interest in the site. The great thing is it would, you know, all of those are great grocers and, you know, we will see how it plays out over time.
MCDONALDI know you've got to run to other things, Victor Hoskins. So, but to tell us briefly, if you can, in the elevator pitch, who's paying for all this?
HOSKINSWell, you know, that was one of the most important things of the transaction was the economic deal. And Hines, Urban Atlantic, Trident, that team provided the best economic deal for the city. And it will be an investment, I think, that will be a balanced investment, which we're all very excited about. I can't reveal, you know, the details. But let's just say that this was the best economic deal for the city. And that was consistent with the objectives also.
MCDONALDVictor Hoskins, who's the District's Deputy Mayer for Planning and Economic Development. And if you look at the number of cranes and things that are around town, you've got a lot to do. So we'll let you go do it. Thank you so much for joining us.
HOSKINSThank you, Mark. Appreciate it.
MCDONALDThank you. On the phone is Muriel Bowser, the council member for District's Ward 4. This must be a big coup for you, Councilwoman Bowser.
MS. MURIEL BOWSERAbsolutely. And thanks for talking about it. People from around the city are talking about Walter Reed. And I'm so glad that you have a focus on it. And we're definitely going to keep our eye on it. We've done the hard work of the planning. Now we need to do the hard work of the doing and getting the campus open to the community.
MCDONALDWe have a lot of conversations on this show about getting these things through advisory neighborhood committees and a lot of the varying diverse views that there often are there. How much of a struggle was it?
BOWSERWell, actually, Mark, we have laid out such an inclusive process. What you're going to find when you talk to the adjacent neighborhoods and commissions and community associations in the upper Ward 4, that there's broad consensus on the project. I consider it one of my most proud achievements. And when I came to office in 2007, you know, the Army was going to keep the whole campus. Now, just six short years later, we're negotiating for the best half of the campus over 60 acres that front Georgia Avenue.
BOWSERAnd during that six years, there has been tremendous discussion with the community. The community and commissions supported the small-area plan, supported the reuse plan. They supported the users that will go there as part of the public benefits portion of the site. And right now they're interested in getting some interim uses going on the site and the ultimate development.
MCDONALDOkay. I'm going to bring in Mike Neibauer, who's from the Washington Business Journal. And, Mike, what's facing them ahead? You're a cynical journalist like me. You must be looking at some of the obstacles that are still in front of them.
MR. MICHAEL NEIBAUERCouncilmember, question: The Deputy Mayor's office has said that they don't expect, you know, the real construction to start until three years after they make a deal with the Army, which is probably still a good year away. We have no idea how much the Army's going to ask for, for the property itself. Do you expect it to get done faster than that? Because you're always talking about getting it done, you know, putting this campus back into use. Do you expect it to be done faster than that?
MR. MICHAEL NEIBAUERAnd, also, the District has almost no money in its budget for this project, $2.3 million over the next six years. Are you going to be putting more in or trying to put more in during the next budget cycle?
BOWSERWell, as you know, Mike, I have pointed this out to the Mayor steadily for the last two years, and the Deputy Mayor's office. What's really important to those surrounding neighborhoods is that we have a project that can get started just as quickly as possible. This is not, however, you know, it's a big campus, a lot of historic uses, and we have to do a negotiation with the Army. So the first thing we want to be is honest with the community. It's not going to start tomorrow.
MCDONALDSo let's just be, can we just clear -- sorry to interrupt you, I just want to be clear for the listeners. The Army still owns the site.
NEIBAUERThe Army still owns the site. And then with the Deputy Mayor...
MCDONALDAnd so there'll be a financial negotiation now?
BOWSERYes. Yeah. It's the Deputy Mayor's plan, of which I agreed with, that the developer should be selected in part of that negotiation. Now, from my point of view, I feel like, well, you know, I would tell the Army, "Aren't you lucky that we're taking this property off your hands?" So they should negotiate a very favorable deal for the District of Columbia.
NEIBAUERBut the Army has said they, you know, and I realize that this is a negotiation, but the Army starts out with, they want full market value for 67 acres in upper northwest. Do you know what the assessment is for Walter Reed? Has the District assessed it? Have they told you what the figure is?
BOWSERWell, I do know we have 67 acres that have been used for a variety of resources over the years that require substantial clean up, that has a very big hospital on it that has to be demolished, that have historic resources that can't be altered, and has public benefits that the Army requires that we use that also mitigate the value of the property. So we're going to have some very smart people on our side negotiating for us, so that we have a good deal for the federal government and a great deal for the District of Columbia.
MCDONALDYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. 800-433-8850. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can get in touch with us through Facebook or by sending a Tweet to @kojoshow. Mike and Muriel, together, what do you imagine is the biggest benefit for the community if this thing eventually happens? And it sounds like it's several years down the road. What are you kind of rubbing your hands at, Muriel, at the idea here?
BOWSERWell, first, let me say this Mike. In that part of the Deputy Mayor's consideration in selecting a development team, is that they had an interim use plan. So the ultimate uses will get started, they estimate, in three years or so. But we expect the development team to animate the campus well before that, whether it's farmer's markets or community concerts or ways to activate the site. So we're going to -- one of the first oversight hearings that I'll have with the new development team will be; how will those interim uses get going?
BOWSERWe also want them to get our fire station up and going. And I'm hopeful that the government will negotiate some kind of arrangement to have the fire station get started before the entire campus is turned over to us. So this is important to D.C. for a lot of reasons. You know how much retail dollars we leak out of the city with residents from upper northwest in Ward 4 and Ward 3 going to Bethesda and Silver Spring.
BOWSERThis will afford them a town center right in D.C. with retail options, with great housing options, with great public space. And it's going to really transform the upper Georgia Avenue corridor.
MCDONALDMike, you've looked at the numbers. Do they add up to something that has a return on investment for the city, or is the mixed-use idea going to mean that it's, you know, a shot in the dark?
NEIBAUERNo. Well, think about what you had there before. I mean, for a century you've had an isolated, fenced-off campus. So what you're doing is building a new community with retail that the upper Georgia Avenue corridor has been starving for. They have nothing up there and they do have to go to Montgomery County to do their shopping for the most part. So, I mean, those are your major benefits. You know, I don't know whether you get a Wegmans there.
BOWSERI don't know why not.
NEIBAUERWell, I think that the roadside bid, they lost Heinz . They built a project around Wegmans that was above ground and that fit the Wegmans parameters. Heinz has put their anchor retail underground. And honestly, I've never heard of a Wegmans go underground. Maybe they're willing to, you know, turn over and do something new for Walter Reed. But they have very strict requirements for what they expect, Wegmans.
NEIBAUERAnd I'm not saying you -- you obviously get a grocery store and Whole Foods has said they want to be there. But, you know, Wegmans may be out unless Heinz is willing to rethink how they've designed their retail. And I'm sure that's all flexible.
BOWSERSure, sure. And this is what I know. Just in 2007 when I came into office, we couldn't convince Safeway to build a store without a sea of parking in front of the store. A short time later they figured out that getting in and having an urban format was going to be the best thing for their company moving forward. Now Wegmans certainly -- they don't have a store in our city but I will tell you this. They want to be at Walter Reed. They've expressed it in any number of ways. And I hear from residents in my ward and across the city that they want Wegmans in the city as well.
BOWSERSo I think that everybody should keep an open mind and keep all the ideas on the table.
MCDONALDWe're going to take a call from Sam in Virginia. Sam, you're on the air.
SAMHi. I'm a son of the last living graduate of the last class of the Walter Reed Army Nursing School. And these were young women from all over the country, mostly from poor families who were unemployed during the depression, which the unemployment was in excess of 25 percent. And my question is, what are you doing for people in the same situation in the neighborhood there? Are there any plans to do something for people who don't have jobs and are looking for jobs? And might be today's equivalent to the families of the students of the last class of the Walter Reed Army Nursing School.
BOWSERYes. Well, I appreciate that question because one of the goals that I set forth during this whole discussion is that if we're going to have these really -- hundreds of million dollars worth of investment on this site, then the government should make sure that D.C. businesses have an opportunity to help build this site and that D.C. residents have an opportunity to work at the site. And so that very much was a commitment I know that the selected developer made.
BOWSERWe know when we hire D.C. residents and we use local firms that those dollars circulate all around the District of Columbia. And I will also say this. The residents of Ward 4 have been extremely proud that Walter Reed was in our neighborhoods for so long. And we've been proud of that -- you know, having our national heroes being served there. And so that tradition should always be honored on the site.
MCDONALDSam, does that give you hope? Oops, I thought I'd lost him and now I have lost him. Sam, thanks for your call. Mike, your observations on the mixed community around there and how it'll serve them.
NEIBAUERWell, there are requirements. There are users that have already been selected to provide, for instance, housing for homeless so others (unintelligible) will be there. Heinz has brought in Help USA, significant affordable housing component. The Heinz Urban Atlantic bid is promising, you know, 4,000 construction jobs and, you know, 1500 permanent jobs on the site. I mean, that's 20, 30 years at full build out, but still, I mean, obviously this provides a big opportunity to get people jobs, whether they're from Ward 4 or from Ward 8. It's doesn't matter. You know, if they're D.C. residents, great, get them working there.
MCDONALDCouncilwoman Bowser, what sort of wish list have you seen from Ward 4 from your constituents there for what they wanted.
BOWSERWell, very high on their list was senior housing. A lot of senior citizens call Ward 4 home and they currently are making choices about downsizing. Many of them go to Riderwood Village or Leisure World out in the counties. And they want similar options right in their own neighborhood. Families have also told us that they want family-style restaurants where kids can enjoy with their parents, you know, dining. They want quality shopping, so we've heard a lot about the Wegmans. We know that we're going to get a great grocer there and so we want to continue to talk about that quality grocer.
BOWSERThey also want a great transportation option, so we've got to figure out how to serve the Tacoma and Silver Spring metro stations at the site, bicycle lanes, parking, being easy parking like we see out in the counties as well. But most importantly, they want this project to get going. They want to make sure that we select a developer that has the cash and the staying power to revitalize 62 acres over 15 years. And they want to make sure that the plans that they've spent several years working on are going to be honored by the team.
MCDONALDOkay. We got a Tweet from Alvin. "Please, we need a D.C. Wegmans." Another Tweet from Karen, "Don't park, please." I'm sure you've heard that one before.
MCDONALDI would also subscribe to that. What else? Rebecca says, "We need affordable housing," as you've been saying. How many units will be built?
NEIBAUERThe Heinz bid has well over 300 affordable housing units attached to it.
MCDONALDLet's take a call from Said in Washington, D.C. Said, you're on the air.
SAIDYeah, we moved up from Columbia Heights because it got crowded. And we're right now in the 14th Street Heights area where it's blocked off and Walter Reed was -- you know, 14th Street didn't go any further. With this new development, you know, will our quiet neighborhood become a thoroughfare? What's going to happen to our neighborhood?
BOWSERWell, there are plans to open up some of the roads but I certainly would only support a very thoughtful approach to doing that. The last thing we want is for a cut through traffic. The appropriate places for large traffic in that part of the city is Georgia Avenue and 16th Street.
MCDONALDSo Councilwoman Bowser, just going back for a second to the length of time that we can expect to wait for this to come to fruition, now I know you're running for Mayor, right?
BOWSERYou got it.
MCDONALDYeah, and so we're looking like four or five years down the road. So it might be -- you might be cutting a ribbon just in time to get reelected if you do win the...
BOWSERHow about that? From your lips to God's ears -- to the voters' ears.
MCDONALDPurely coincidental of course, right?
BOWSERWell, we've been working on this a long time, as you know, Mike (sic) . And no matter where I sit, this is an important project for our Ward and for the entire city. I like to say we were just out at the retail conference a few months back and Walter Reed was really the bell of the ball. And so that's -- it's almost an embarrassment of riches because our neighbors had a hard time selecting one of the plans because they were all three good. And, you know, we're -- while we're talking about Wegmans or Whole Foods, isn't that a great place to be in, Wegmans or Whole Foods fighting over your neighborhood development?
BOWSERSo we're very excited about it. I like to give credit where it's due and that's to our communities that really fought for what they want and they're getting it. I think that the government moved just as expeditiously as possible within the terms of the (word?) And now it's going to be incumbent upon us, like Mike pointed out, you got to put your money where your mouth is. If you believe in Walter Reed, it's got to show up in your budget. And we're calling on Mayor Gray to make sure that that happens in this budget. And it'll certainly happen in any Bowser budgets that come to the council.
BOWSERWe have to make sure that we're holding the developer accountable to what they said they would do in the bid. That sometimes doesn't happen. They tell us one thing to win the bid. A year later they're doing something else. And they're going to have an early chance to prove it with delivering on these interim uses, getting our public benefits providers in and working on our fire station. So that's what we're going to be doing. I'm in that position. You know, I chair the Committee on Economic Development and we're looking forward to having these ongoing conversations with the Deputy Mayor's office.
MCDONALDMike Niebauer, will the numbers add up in the end? Do you think we're going to pull all the bundles of cash together and actually make this happen?
NEIBAUERI think Walter Reed will absolutely be redeveloped in some way. I don't know, you know, how many of us will still be around when it's finished, but it's a billion dollar project and it's, you know, creating something new out of nothing. So it'll take a lot of time.
MCDONALDMike Niebauer covers economic development, the chambers of commerce, transportation and politics for the Washington Business Journal. Thanks for joining us. And Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, the council member for District 4, thank you for joining us for this discussion. After this short break we'll be talking about authors in our classrooms coming up.
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