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Local Politics Complicate Hill East Development

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
People line up for a bus outside the old D.C. General Hospital, which has been converted into a homeless shelter. Located in Hill East in the middle of the Reservation 13 complex, development at the site has been politically embattled for more than a decade.

On the eastern fringe of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, not far from the banks of the Anacostia River, sits the District’s largest shelter for homeless families. It’s located on the Reservation 13 area, long home to city services typically shielded from the public eye, long targeted for commercial and residential development, and long an issue in District politics.

During a frigid spell three weeks into January, officially declared a “cold weather emergency” by Mayor Vincent Gray, about 286 homeless families took refuge in the old D.C. General Hospital.

Formerly a 482-bed facility that provided medical and surgical care and substance abuse treatment for District residents, including inmates at the nearby D.C. Jail, the abandoned hospital is at its maximum occupancy. The building, plagued by rodents as well as heat, water and security problems, also serves as an emergency shelter for adult women.

“They run full capacity virtually every night as well,” said D.C. Department of Human Services Director David Berns, whom Gray tapped in 2011 to take on the task of housing the city’s poorest families. “We have been inundated with families coming in.”

The population has been pegged at almost 1,000 people, including close to 600 children living in what was once the city’s only full-service public hospital. D.C. General sits in the middle of the Reservation 13 complex, also home to drug treatment and correctional facilities, that has been targeted for redevelopment for more than a decade in the District’s master plan for the area.

The Battle of Hill East

Although the 67-acre site, also known as Hill East, lies in Ward 7, the promise of new amenities for Ward 6 residents and prospect of opening Capitol Hill to the Anacostia riverfront make the development plan a campaign issue for D.C. Council candidates Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson, who are each vying to represent Capitol Hill and Ward 6.

Both say they are frustrated with the long-stalled status of development, the city’s failure to serve its homeless families and the seeming lack of political will to bring the community’s vision to fruition.

“The challenge is how do you fight against the politics that tends to insert itself into Reservation 13 and focus on getting the job done,” Allen said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

As chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, Allen worked with residents in 2010 as they sifted through developers’ proposals for developing the site. Then-Mayor Adrian Fenty promised an announcement before the 2010 primary election but kept pushing it back to the point where it “felt like a game,” Allen said.

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