Since groundbreaking in 2009, 160,000 truckloads of earth have been excavated, 250,000 cubic yards of concrete have been poured and 40 miles of plumbing pipes have been installed in Southeast D.C., all in preparation for a new Coast Guard headquarters scheduled to open in August. The 1.2 million-square-foot facility will welcome about 3,700 civilian and military employees to the historic St. Elizabeths Hospital west campus. The colossal effort—the largest public works project in D.C. since Pentagon construction—is just the first phase in the even more herculean task of consolidating and relocating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Phases 2 and 3, if they proceed as planned, are expected to require building and renovating 4.5 million-square-feet on the 172-acre site to accommodate over 14,000 DHS employees.
The striking, 11-level Coast Guard HQ steps down a hill toward the Anacosta River, offering grand views of the downtown and Capitol Hill from every level. Though a massive structure, the dominant color is green, from 3.3 acres of landscaped courtyards and 5.6 acres of vegetated roofs. Perkins+Will completed the preliminary design, and Clark Design Build, Ltd was awarded a $435 million dollar contract from the GSA for final design and construction. As part of the design and build team, WDG served as architect of record for the headquarters building. The result is a facility that meets GSA’s highest level of security requirements, including hardened facades, stand-off distances, and 70,000 square feet of Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF). Daylit office space and water and energy conservation from the extensive green roofs are among the design features expected to earn the building LEED-Gold certification. You can explore the building exterior and evolving campus yourself using Google Maps.
Among the project’s staunchest supporters is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Norton, who serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is a vocal advocate of saving taxpayer money by consolidating agencies and shifting from leased to federally-owned work spaces. She also contends that the DHS relocation, plus D.C. government efforts to redevelop St. Elizabeths’ east campus, will revitalize the city’s Ward 8. A bill introduced by Norton would name the new headquarters after Coast Guard Signalman 1st Class Douglas Munro, who died rescuing Marines at Guadalcanal in 1942 and earned the Coast Guard’s only Medal of Honor. In a July 16 statement praising House passage of the bill, Norton said, “Honoring Munro today is particularly appropriate for the new state-of-the-art building, the first the Coast Guard has owned. Munro’s heroism will help Americans take note of the many valiant acts of the U.S. Coast Guard that go unrecognized.” If the Senate also moves swiftly, the appellation “Douglas A. Munro Coast Guard Headquarters Building” could be official before the moving vans arrive.
But not everyone is sanguine about the changes at St. Elizabeths. Preservationists have lodged complaints since the GSA took over the deteriorating west campus in 2004. Founded by Congress in 1852, the Government Hospital for the Insane housed as many as 7,000 patients at a time including John Hinkley, Jr., but none remained on the west campus after 2002. Current and proposed DHS development poses enough threats to the remaining historic buildings and ornamental landscape that the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) includes St. Elizabeths on a list of most endangered places. The Coast Guard headquarters on the hill has especially troubled some critics, despite efforts to reduce its visual impact. A program officer for NTHP, Nell Ziehl, said in an interview with The Architects Newspaper, “The site was always part of the green backdrop of D.C. as conceived by the McMillan plan [of 1901]. . . . The Coast Guard building will disrupt the monumental setting of the center of the city.”
More fiscally-minded critics question the ever-increasing costs of the DHS relocation plan. Already, some estimate that leaving the Coast Guard’s current Buzzard Point headquarters before the end of its lease exposes the government to $30 to $60 million in payments for an empty building. Further, budget hawks in Congress have suppressed the appropriations needed to realize the full plan for St. Elizabeths. The saga of its years-long delays and fiscal woes was told here on this blog last year. The administration remains committed to the project, as indicated by continuing budget requests, but the funds remain in limbo and some Congressmen, such as John Mica (R-FL), have vowed to restrain DHS from “creating physical monuments to itself”, seeking to shut off funding and substantially reducing the agency’s scope. It appears that for much of DHS, a political shift will need to precede a physical move to St. Elizabeths.