DAVID GREENE, host:
We're reporting this week on the closing of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Among the many military bases that have closed across the country, it had a very high profile. As we heard yesterday, the hospital held a special place in Army history, treating everyone from retired generals to wounded veterans from Afghanistan. It also had a special place in the community, and its closing creates 70 acres of available real estate.
Sabri Ben-Achour of member station WAMU reports on the possibilities.
SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: It's just after the midday rush at Ledo's Pizza on Georgia Avenue in Northwest D.C. Tim and Kelly Shuy sit down at a table.
Ms. KELLY SHUY: We get a lot of military families, people who are visiting, folks who are in the hospital.
BEN-ACHOUR: Their pizzeria is across the street from the sprawling Walter Reed campus. Lush with trees and a hilly landscape, it includes several iconic, 100-year-old buildings with red-tile roofs where patients, their families and staff were able to wander and just look out on the rest of the neighborhood from a distance.
Many in the neighborhood call the medical center a fortress. But for the Shuys, it was a mainstay. Doctors and patients alike have supported their business for years.
Ms. SHUY: Some of them come in uniforms. We have patients who come in who haven't been out of Walter Reed. I've had dozens of people tell me this is their first meal out of the hospital.
BEN-ACHOUR: Those days, though, are just about over. Walter Reed is closing, all 113 acres of it.
Ms. SHUY: We've been saying goodbye to people for a long time. We say goodbye to people every day. But it's horrible. I mean, we've had tears over saying goodbye to people who are regulars.
BEN-ACHOUR: Of course, the Shuys are losing more than just familiar faces.
Ms. SHUY: As far as the business goes, obviously it's a huge hit for us.
BEN-ACHOUR: As Walter Reed leaves, it leaves behind questions: What is going to take its place? There is no shortage of opinion.
Ms. CHRISTINE ENCINAS: We are looking for quality space for our students.
Mr. TROY SWANDA: We'd like to use part of the campus to develop affordable family housing.
Ms. ELLEN MCBARNETT: We'd like to see a bit of parkland right along here. Many of the neighbors have been talking about dog-walk parks or places for children to play.
That's Christine Encinas, Troy Swanda and Ellen McBarnett. They're residents and interested parties.
And that's just the beginning. The State Department will take a chunk of the land, possibly for embassies, but that leaves almost 70 acres for D.C. In a city where a quarter of the land is owned by the federal government, demand for land is high.
Mr. VICTOR HOSKINS (Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, Washington, D.C.): This is a uniquely vocal community, let me just put it that way.
BEN-ACHOUR: Victor Hoskins is deputy mayor of Planning and Economic Development and co-chairs the committee that's going to figure out just what the District of Columbia is going to do with all this land.
Mr. HOSKINS: Actually, the interest we've gotten from a number of retailers already has been, really, quite astounding. And there's a chance now to revive a main street, which is Georgia Avenue, which has for years been suffering from, you know, decay.
BEN-ACHOUR: D.C.'s government has a major interest, as well. For 100 years, this property has been federal and untaxable. The city estimates it could get $20 million a year in tax revenue.
And the people who worked at Walter Reed mostly drove in and drove out, not spending as much in the neighborhood as destination consumers might. Plus, if retail takes off, it might supply local jobs. That is, of course, if they get it right.
Faith Wheeler is a neighborhood representative who lives near Walter Reed. She's standing about a mile away from the hospital on a block where new development didn't work out so well.
Ms. FAITH WHEELER (Neighborhood Representative): Well, I don't want to see all those for-lease signs. Look at that. If that happened on Georgia Avenue, Walter Reed's campus, it would be awful, horrible. According to textbook ideas, this is the place where retail ought to be booming. It's not.
BEN-ACHOUR: This is what Wheeler does not want to see: the street as a commuter corridor, lined by sterile and vacant office buildings. One thing she does want is some sort of tribute to the place's history, and that is likely. Many of the historic building facades will be kept. But Wheeler's voice is one of many.
Ms. LISA BENTON-SHORT (Professor of Geography, George Washington University Geography): It's kind of the new realities of urban planning in the 21st century.
BEN-ACHOUR: Lisa Benton-Short is a professor of geography at George Washington University. She's written about previous base closings. She says this will take a while to sort out.
Ms. BENTON-SHORT: I mean, I think for much of the 20th century, planners were quite top-down in their planning. They told us what we needed in our spaces. Sometimes they were right, and sometimes they weren't. In the last 25 years or so, the planning profession has really changed. And one of the most important ways it's changed is to bring in public participation and planning.
BEN-ACHOUR: Public workshops, public forums, public meetings, public meetings, public meetings. Benton-Short says it's messy.
The military has its rules, too. There will have to be services for the homeless. There will have to be organizations that serve the community, such as schools. And there's an entire bureaucratic process that'll probably take two years before a deal is finalized, let alone anything gets built. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will have to approve it. There will have to be an environmental impact assessment.
Ms. BENTON-SHORT: We're talking 10 years, 15 years before these visions are actually transformed into reality.
BEN-ACHOUR: That only heightens the fear of area businesses who will have to wait that long.
There's also radioactive waste from X-ray machines and cancer treatments that needs cleaning up. And there's asbestos to be removed - all very doable, but it'll take time. It's also one reason why how much D.C. will have to pay the Army hasn't been nailed down yet.
But when all is said and done, one thing that everyone agrees on is the potential this site holds.
Mr. ETHELBERT DAWSON (Research Chemist): This is something that I hope will be a positive.
BEN-ACHOUR: Seventy-seven-year-old Ethelbert Dawson came to Walter Reed's official closing ceremony last month. He lives around the corner, and worked at Walter Reed for 25 years as a research chemist.
Mr. DAWSON: When I was here, I never thought that this day would ever come. We used to call it Walter Wonderful, because that's what it was.
BEN-ACHOUR: He says he can't really predict what this new space will mean for Washington, D.C.
Mr. DAWSON: But for Walter Reed and all of the positiveness that that hospital has given this community, I don't know if they can ever reduplicate that.
BEN-ACHOUR: All eyes are on this space, to see whether the disappearance of a 100-year-old place of healing will usher in an urban rebirth or leave a scar.
For NPR News, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour in Washington.
GREENE: Walter Reed itself was scarred by some scandals over the years, and we'll hear tomorrow how they changed the way the Army treats its wounded.
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