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Armed Forces Retirement Home

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR DC's ARMED FORCES RETIREMENT HOME

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In short space of 200 years, the Armed Forces Retirement Home site in northern DC will have been transformed from a 19th Century banker's country estate into a welcome and neighborly green occupant of 20th Century suburban space, and must now reinvent itself yet again by accepting its evolving 21st Century role as a major urban business and residential site within DC's "city limits". If AFRH cannot make this next transformation, it should move on to greener pastures elsewhere, since its functions do not require continued location in the nation's capital city. The first step in this rebirth, however, will be the evolution of a robust, long-range Master Plan that may stretch the vision of both the National Capital Planning Commission and DC's Office of Long-range Planning. Commitment to a shorter-range, neighborhood-soothing, transportation-neglecting, interim plan could easily hamper the city's longer range needs for growth. NARPAC thinks it's show time for the bigger picture.

We think we see the handwriting on the walls of the home; we find the AFRH draft Master Plan wanting in several of its aspects; and we offer our own NARPAC Commentary on what we believe would be in the best interests of the home and, more important, of our national capital city.

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page handwriting on the walls

One of the oldest, largest, prettiest, and now emptiest, properties in our nation's capital city is the old US Soldiers Home. It sits on the southern face of one of the highest "hills" (alt. = 320') in DC, overlooking downtown to the south, Maryland to the East, and Virginia across the Potomac to the West. The 255-acre "estate" was purchased by the Federal Government in 1851 from Banker George Riggs, and designated the "Military Asylum" for the relief and support of invalid and disabled soldiers of the (US) Army". It was subsequently significantly expanded. Like many aging Americans and American institutions, it has begun to outlive its usefulness. Its infrastructure is getting old, its declining membership is both older and sicker than ever, and its finances, fixed until recently by laws beyond its control, is best characterized as "land poor". The only real choice for the recently re-designated Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) is to begin to sell off and/or redevelop its assets, which have, of course, multiplied handsomely in value over a century and a half. Not surprisingly, there are many opinions as to just what should be done with this unusual site. But one aspect that cannot be ignored is its size. The simple chart below shows how much of "downtown" (east of the White House) is covered by an overlay of this AFRH site, tipped over on its west side to point at the White House:

so long a neighborhood freebie

One problem, of course, is that AFRH's neighbors, have benefitted greatly from this huge 272- odd acre "park" with its vast trees, its impressive "views" (at least for Washington, DC), and its steady source of government employment. It boasts a well manicured nine-hole golf course used more by neighbors (and Congress) than by its frail residents (less than 100 play). Less than 20 tend their own vegetable patches in an area still large enough to grow all vegetables for 3000 residents, as once needed. Not including its golf course, it counts some 130 acres of "open space". A few of its many facilities and spaces are made available for neighborhood activities on a controlled basis. On a practical urban scale, of course, it is seriously underutilized, with a daytime population of seven persons per acre, and an overall FAR (floor area ratio) of 0.0022. Its 15 largest buildings have a total floor space of only 1.24 million square feet, and its other 40 smaller buildings have a combined total of 158 thousand square feet.

a preservationist's wonderland

AFRH has some genuine assets of historic value. Many of its buildings and secondary structures do date back 150 years. For instance, DC's first underground reservoir (15 million gallons) is hidden under the AFRH golf course, unused and not open to visitors. By any standard, however, the major AFRH attraction is the 14-room early-American country home where Abe Lincoln spent over half of his total time as president, some 300 feet above the sweltering heat of DC's infamous topographic bowl sprawled below. Originally the Riggs House, it was renamed the "Lincoln Cottage" and proclaimed to be a National Monument by President Clinton in 2000. It is shown below, now being restored by the National Trust:

Possibly more controversial is the desire of many local activists to preserve the sweep of "natural vistas" out across the countryside a full 270 degrees from East to West (between the many stately trees). Imagine standing in one place, with a handsome statue of General Scott (right) at your back, and being able to see both Maryland and Virginia (less than six miles away). It may in fact rank second only to the equivalent DC vistas from the bluff at St. Elizabeth's. Better vistas are available, of course, from the taller buildings (up to ten stories) already on both sites. Nevertheless, "natural vistas" appear to be a serious consideration in limiting the height of any future buildings (downhill), even though their rooftops could provide improved man-made vistas. The relatively new La Garde Building shown below is the focus of the King Health Center. Its height was limited to 85' in order to protect the view from further uphill:

not a real drawing card for the nation's capital

Only about 2000 tourists visit the AFRH, out of more than 20,000,000 that make a pilgrimage to our national capital annually. Visits by both tourists and neighbors are now made the more difficult by a single, guarded entrance, and a full perimeter chain link fence. Even the two rustic ponds (stocked for pastime fishing) are surrounded by a separate chain link fence to avoid accidents to residents or neighbors. The long-closed west side gate at Illinois Avenue (below) gives some indication of growing decrepitation at this bucolic site:

AFRH's southern boundary (Irving Street) in only a few blocks uphill from the no-longer functional, also chain-link-fenced, McMillan sand filtration plant. This separate and also valuable 25-acre site is distinguished by its 20 very distinctive stone sand storage bins (towers), and its extensive, but now-empty and useless, underground filtration beds. It has now been in functional limbo for twenty years as neighbors fight here too to stave off urban growth and save this additional "free" open space. It was photographed (below) framed by two telephone poles (it's election time in DC) at the very southeastern corner of the AFRH property:

not really your typical 21st Century retiree cohort

A second awkward problem is that the declining resident population doesn't really fit the contemporary profile of retired folks, particularly those with limited means and disabilities. Only about half even get visitors. The eligible cohort includes only two populations: First, enlisted personnel who have served at some time overseas, in their final years (seven on average), and only when they are alone, presumably surviving, or separated from, their partners. Second, other enlisted personnel needing (short term) medical treatment at various nearby government facilities, such as the VA hospital and National Rehabilitation Center just across Irving Street, or at the soon-to-be-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center two miles up Georgia Avenue. There are now roughly 700 individual residents in each category, but this new total has been swollen by the transfer of several hundred residents from AFRH's other campus in Gulfport, LA, virtually destroyed by Katrina.

There are some quite modern hospital facilities, and a still-operational facility powerplant with its stately tall brick chimney. But many of the older buildings have now been vacated, and the AFRH has struggled to find rent-paying tenants and local organizations. The residents' living accommodations are also sparse at best. Many, due to their physical condition, will live in hospital rooms until they pass on. Ambulatory residents live in single rooms, most without their own bathrooms, and many dimensionally smaller than the current American standard for jail cells. Very few of the resident veterans draw any direct benefits from their location within our national capital city and/or metro area. The main residential building (southern face shown below) is both the largest (357K sqft) and the tallest (127 ft) on the site, but in no way overpowers its surroundings:

not really your model 21st Century retirement location

Finally, the original inspiration for the Old Soldiers Home was to honor the aging veterans of the 1850's and subsequently of the tortuous American Civil War. In that era our nation's capital was the uniquely proper place for such an institution (not unlike St. Elizabeth's Insane Asylum south of the Anacostia River. Today, however, Washington, DC, inside or outside its topographic bowl, is hardly considered a Mecca for longer- and better-living retired Americans. Surely it is not a major centroid for those brave Americans who now serve in the enlisted military ranks. And the notion of a "singles-only" home is not likely to be a big draw for the greying Baby Boomers. Additionally, the nation's capital metro area, despite its first-rate medical facilities, is surely not the only place in the US to provide needed specialized hospital care. Nor should it be overlooked that there is more than enough space on the immediately neighboring VA hospital grounds (below) to provide transient outpatient quarters should AFRH fade away. Compared to the three prominent hospitals across 1st Street to the west (Washington Hospital Center, DC Children's Hospital, and the National Rehabilitation Center) are far more densely developed.

To be insensitively blunt, there is no longer any abiding rationale for keeping this AFRH at this site or anywhere else within the District of Columbia. That applies with equal certainty to a number of other military-related facilities which rob the city of substantial revenues without adding anything else of unique national import. This will surely become evident in the verdicts of the next, first post-Iraq, Base Realignment and Closing Commission deliberations. While there may be some residual reasons for honoring the past (beyond the adjacent US National Cemetery), and even the statue of General Scott standing on "inspiration point", there is no conceivable justification for hoarding an area almost as large as the National Mall, and half the land area of New York's Central Park (not counting its huge reservoir).

financial problems are growing

AFRH expenses are inescapably rising, even as its population declines (and the Gulfport facility is destroyed). Health care costs are clearly increasing all across the US. The remaining veterans at AFRH are, in its words, "older and sicker", and (not said) contribute very modestly to their own sustenance. The institution's infrastructure is clearly aging, and some older residential units have been closed as too expensive to run, despite a waiting list of more than 250 veterans. As a quasi- governmental "corporation", there is a legal prohibition on fund raising (or even grant-seeking), and there are serious restrictions on investing. The only "regular" sources of income, believe it or not, are a) a 50-cent per month deduction for all enlisted military pay checks; b) the money raised by the military services from fines levied on military personnel for various behavioral infractions; c) limited payments by the residents (in proportion to their ability to pay); d) interest on trust funds, Treasury Bills, and a few modest bequests; and e) income from leasing out various surplus office and living facilities.

At this time, 35 staffers for the Army Corps of Engineers and 20 staffers for the National Trust are the largest tenants, along with a small charter school. Several homes are rented out to qualifying government officials, and 20 Smithsonian Institution staff members tend several greenhouses. Furthermore, the home appears to have done as much as it can to tighten its own spending belt, shutting down oversized, older buildings, reducing staff to 277 personnel, and shifting from self-contained operations (like bus maintenance) to government-sponsored services. It does still operate its own period powerplant (below) alongside North Capital Street:

Recognizing AFRH's financial problems, the Congress authorized the Secretary of Defense to "sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of real property excess to AFRH's needs". As a result, AFRH has recently closed a big real estate "deal" to sell off an almost totally-unused 49-acre (!) plot east of North Capitol Street (a short, incongruous stretch of virtual freeway here, as shown above). It is adjacent to properties owned by the Catholic Diocese, including Catholic University and the important National Shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Purchased for less than $500,000 per acre, the Diocese intends to develop the site as a major source of income to meet its own financial problems. By NARPAC estimates, this purchase price was a "real steal", since the city-assessed property value of the 100-odd acres already owned by the Diocese in this area is over $650,000 per acre, even with its special non-profit/educational land-use codes. It might be noted that this authorization could presumably be used to sell off the site in its entirety.

"oil wells" are good solutions

Converting parts of large non-profit sites into "oil wells" that not only help finance the sponsor, but provide significant revenues for their host city, has been part of NARPAC's revenue enhancement suggestions since its inception. Besides this recent Catholic Diocese purchase, it is the source of spirited controversy for "Square 54" at Georgetown University It applies to WMATA-owned properties around their metro stations, currently causing considerable local apprehensions around the Friendship Heights station. And AFRH is "testing" a similar developmental solution among the many special interest groups that cast covetous eyes on its very large property. This clearly becomes more practical now given Congressional authorization.

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pageAFRH looks at its options and a comprehensive "Master Plan"

At this time, AFRH is looking at several very different options for its future. Most involve rebuilding Gulfport in some fashion, plus continued modernization of the DC site. These were presented to Congress in a special "post-Katrina report" in February 2006. There are also some considerations for finding "additional sites" for AFRH. The purpose of more sites would be to locate closer to: where the veterans retired; where the residents' families are; or at VA Centers in targeted growth areas. In general, these alternate site considerations confirm NARPAC's view that being headquartered in DC is by no means essential, although this site could conceivably provide a very major "oil well" in perpetuity.

Independent of the Gulfport calamity, AFRH has been pursuing ways to use the (remaining) DC site as the "primary source" to assure the financial security of any and all AFRH sites. To this end, the very dynamic new AFRH management drafted an extensive "Master Plan" during 2005 to cover both a) the modernization of a cluster of their own current facilities, including the golf course and "lake district",and b) the guidelines for private sector development of the remaining third of the property to "increase revenues for the Trust Fund". This very detailed, and carefully thought-out draft master plan was presented to the National Capital Planning Commission (the watchdog for federal property development). It is available on the AFRH web site at http://www/afrhdevelopment.com and will not be repeated here, other than to note that it seems focused far more on near-term acceptability than on maximizing long-time land productivity.

In summary, two "zones" at the northern and eastern end of their campus would be held for AFRH modernization. Zone 1 appears to be primarily administrative, and is almost certainly larger than the home will need for that purpose. Zone 2 seems underplayed here, because much of it is situated on a promontory almost as high as General Scott's statue, but is now occupied only by a "forest" and an "auto craft shop". It is an odd place to propose "low density residential" development "for a married couple community". It seems a major underutilization of the site.

Zones 3 and 4, on the eastern and southern sector, would be subject to major business-like development. Again, the proposed utilization seems way below its potential, and considerably below that at the nearby hospitals across Irving Street.

Zones 5 and 6, on the western side of the site, beyond the golf course, and excluding the two "lakes", would be made available for low-density residential, or minor "institutional" uses. Again, the plan is well below the potential for the site as it will almost certainly be developed with the next few decades.

return to the top of the pageNARPAC Commentary

Based on briefings and a tour provided to members of the Committee of 100 for the Federal City, NARPAC has been able to develop its own very distinctive views of the AFRH plan. These are in no way whatsoever related to the Committee of 100's institutional positions, which are (understandably) heavy on preserving: the major past plans of L'Enfant and McMillan; open spaces; historic artifacts; and scenic views. NARPAC, on the other hand, is far more focused on the next 100 years, and the need to adjust past plans for the realities of the next 100 years. We focus more on the city's own financial sustainability; greater living and working densities throughout; and a level of urban mobility necessary to remain the vital core of the national capital metro area. This will require the sensible continued development of all of DC's scarce land (less than 30,000 acres) and increasing emphasis on its municipal "productivity". A very substantial share of DC's land is off the tax rolls for government, foreign, or non-profit use, and the AFRH site is typical of many such large tracts which must eventually contribute to the city's revenues. Just as AFRH seeks "oil wells" to assure its future, so the city needs equivalent oil wells too.

the context: a large, rapidly changing "area of influence"

The AFRH site has an "Area of Influence" (AI) that includes some 2750 acres (nearly 10% of DC's total land), bounded on the west by 13th St.; the north by New Hampshire Ave; the east by CSX/Metro tracks: and the south by Rhode Island Ave. Redevelopment should be planned within larger context of this AI, seeking the potential participation of the included institutions. The AI (shown to the left) includes several institutions that contribute significantly to prestige of national capital city; In addition to the AFRH itself, these include a major university, a major religious shrine, several Catholic colleges, several cemeteries, and four of the city's major medical facilities. It would not be unreasonable to seek new commercial/residential uses that are not only thematically consistent with past and present uses, but which relate well to emerging future needs. Themes of this AI are: retirement, medicine; education, and religion, and it should be possible to balance the urge for historic preservation with opportunities to generate new landmarks of equally lasting value.

NOTE: Key to Color Shading:

  • Blue Outline: current AFRH site;
  • Orange Outline (left): recently sold property for Catholic "oil well";
  • Green Shading: permanent parks, cemeteries, and reservoir;
  • Blue Shading: major hospital and educational facilities;
  • Purple Shading: half-mile radii around eight nearest metrorail stations;
  • Bright Green Dot: Grant Circle, centroid of middle-class Petworth neighborhood;
But only one-third of this AI generates revenues for DC. It is one of the city's least productive sections. It is part of Ward 5, which itself has a below average share of taxable land, either residential or commercial; by far the highest share of non-governmental tax-exempt land; below average income and housing values, higher than average unemployment , above average crime, few married couple families, and relatively few householders with college degrees. Ward 5 needs an "oil well" or two of its own. On the other hand, north of the AFRH site lies the tidy Petworth residential neighborhood, clustered around Sherman and Grant Circles, that is certain to enjoy further prosperity and growth (see photos below of Grant Circle)

50 more years of transit-oriented development

The boundary of this Area of Interest includes seven separate metro stations, which should also make this area a prime target for expanding urban growth. Both with Green/Yellow Line Metro stations, the neighborhoods of Shaw and LeDroit Park, around Howard University, are already undergoing a major rebirth, and Columbia Heights will soon outdo them both with high-density condos and "big box" stores. Next in line for "smart urban growth" should be the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station (shown below in its current urban desolation), which is also a major stop for the new "rapid bus" system being added to Georgia Avenue this fall.

This is the only one of the seven Metrorail stations that is within reasonable walking distance of the AFRH site (from the West). In short, "downtown" is spreading north beyond the base of the topographic bowl (marked by Florida Avenue). Within a few decades, the existing transportation infrastructure will change the character of all the properties adjacent to the AFRH site, and in turn require that that transportation infrastructure be expanded. For instance, the sole "connection" between the AFHR site, and the 49-acre parcel it just sold is a two-lane overpass, shown below, (currently leading nowhere on either side) once known as "Scale Gate Road":

AFRH planners need to understand that within their lifetime, "transit-oriented development" will have become a main concern in the immediate surrounds of the home. It is vitally important to recognize that there will be continued longer range development in this area, and that any new Master Plan should not compromise further development later on. Whatever portion of the site is to be developed at all should be consistent with densities envisioned for 50 years hence. Near- term compromise developments to satisfy current local activists could well stunt the city's long- term future. AFRH should seek urban- and regionally-specific new/expanded uses for their property that complement, but do not mimic, the present day suburban taxonomy.

respecting the urban street grid

One of the fundamental issues, then, in the new AFRH Master Plan is what to do with street layouts throughout the site. AFRH has taken a very strong position that with the partial exception of the higher-density southeast corner (Zones 3 and 4, in their parlance), existing scenic roads, as laid out in 1the 1860s and '70s should be protected throughout the site. Oddly enough, this is very much at odds with the demands placed on other sites now being redeveloped, wherein "(re)establishing the urban street grid" is considered of major importance. This applies to Reservation 13 (the DC General site) ; the Anacostia Waterfront ; the new baseball stadium site; the Walter Reed Site; even the new approaches to the Kennedy Center and the redevelopment of the Old Convention Center. By comparison, the AFRH Master Plan speaks of "retaining and utilizing the existing historic access road patterns" because "these meandering curvilinear roads are reflective of the late 19th-century picturesque aesthetic of park and suburban landscape design of the period". One can only wonder if they would secretly like to ban hydrocarbon-fueled vehicles, rubber tires, macadam paving, sewers and indoor plumbing as well.

NARPAC does not see the future of the AFRH site as some 19th Century theme park, but rather as the forward-looking precursor to 22nd century urban living. AFRH has made their planning problem much simpler by retaining the 60-acre, nine-hole golf course as a permanent barrier to cross-site travel. No attempt is made to set out a (roughly) rectilinear grid, overlaid with DC's trademark diagonals and traffic circles. The result could be a permanent constraint on site development as a normal part of "downtown DC". We believe AFRH should "think again". At the very least, intermediate developments in zones 3 and 4 should be compatible with later high- density extension throughout the lower half of the site from west to east.

other urban demands

Finally, as the AFRH site is engulfed by the rising tide of urbanity (?), there are also any number of other considerations that only suburbanites and green park-lovers are free to ignore. These include the following:

o park/open space needs must be considered in the context of all extant/potential sites within and beyond the AI. Relative to other cities, DC is awash in green space (and uncounted "blue space");

o opportunities must be sought to incorporate relevant city services (e.g., schools, libraries, clinics, and FEMS);

o new developments must help resolve major urban problems (e.g., affordable housing, adult education, foster homes);

o accommodating increasing urban density will require adopting "3-dimensional" land use planning (e.g., underground parking/storage; surface-level businesses and public access; above- ground urban decks (perhaps over traffic-heavy roads); upper stories for business/residential uses; and even user- and environmentally-friendly roof tops;

o new technologies should be adopted where possible, (e.g., automated parking;'smart curbs' for parking, public transit; digital communications towers?);

o given this site's location between major northbound evacuation routes, consideration should be given for including dual-use provisions for emergency relief of major urban disasters.

We find the present AFRH Master Plan lacking in the requisite longer-range, necessarily urban, perspective. We are concerned that neither the NCPC or DC's Office of Planning will make up for it.

Summary

In short space of 200 years, the Armed Forces Retirement Home site in northern DC will have been transformed from a 19th Century banker's country estate into a welcome and neighborly green occupant of 20th Century suburban space, and must now reinvent itself yet again by accepting its evolving 21st Century role as a major urban business and residential site within DC's "city limits". If it cannot make this next transformation, it should move on to greener pastures elsewhere, since its functions do not require its continued location in the nation's capital city. The first step in this rebirth, however, will be the evolution of a robust, long-range Master Plan that may stretch the vision of both the National Capital Planning Commission and DC's Office of Long-range Planning. Commitment to a shorter-range, neighborhood-soothing, transportation-neglecting, interim plan could easily hamper the city's longer range needs. NARPAC thinks it's show time for the bigger picture.



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This page was updated on July 15, 2006



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