St. Elizabeths Among District’s ‘High Risk’ Properties

Posted October 28, 2003 at 2:17pm

A national landmark, located just two miles behind the Capitol, is in such a state of extreme deterioration that it will cost the federal government nearly $500 million to renovate. First established in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, St. Elizabeths Hospital, located at 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, served as the first and only national federal mental health facility. It consists of a West and East campus, contains more than 300 acres of property and was declared a national landmark in 1990. The Senate Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), held a hearing earlier this month to discuss the poor use of some federal property, including St. Elizabeths. In January, the General Accounting Office added federal property to its High Risk List, which is reserved for programs that are “particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement,” Collins said. The District of Columbia now owns the East campus of St. Elizabeths, which serves as a fully functional mental health facility. Until recently, the District occupied several buildings on the West campus but vacated them in January. Designed in part by Thomas Walker — the architect of the U.S. Capitol Dome — and inhabited by the mentally insane and the occasional poet (American poet turned fascist Ezra Pound occupied a room for 13 years), the West campus of St. Elizabeths once stood gowned in ivy, an elegant building surrounded by a standing army of trees. Now home to abandoned medical files — some in boxes marked “confidential pls [sic] shred” — orphaned office furniture and rodent bandits that litter the hallway with footprints, the elegance of the West campus has given way to massive deterioration, a result of neglect and mismanagement. “I have visited this historic property, and its condition is truly deplorable,” Collins said. The West campus is also home to a Civil War cemetery where the remains of both Union and Confederate black and white soldiers are buried together. It has 61 buildings and 1.1 million square feet of office space that have not been fully utilized for nearly two decades. The federal government owns land and buildings, called real property assets, that amount to $328 billion and include more than 3 billion square feet of building space. Since the addition of federal property to the High Risk List, the GAO has released a report that identified 600 vacant properties and 327 underutilized properties owned by three agencies: the Veterans Affairs Department, the General Services Administration and the U.S. Postal Service. These properties represent more than 2,000 acres and 32.1 million square feet of vacant or underutilized land, according to the committee. “This means that the GSA alone currently possessed the equivalent of almost five Pentagons worth of vacant and underutilized space,” Collins said. “This is costly to maintain and could be put to better use. We can and must do better.” The total number of vacant and unused buildings is unknown because a comprehensive list does not exist. “You manage what you measure and if you don’t have accurate measurements, you won’t be able to manage,” said David Walker, U.S. comptroller general at the GAO. Each agency manages its own list of property, but many agencies don’t properly maintain their real estate records, which is “part of the reason why federal real property is considered a high risk topic by the GAO,” said Andrea Hofelich, spokeswoman for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. How to build a consolidated list has yet to be determined. An investigation of the mismanagement of St. Elizabeths was the focus of the Oct. 1 hearing. Several witnesses from the committee, the federal government and the District of Columbia gave testimonies. The committee investigated four buildings on the hospital’s West campus during five different occasions. They found collapsed ceilings, sunken floors and extensive water damage. Martha Knisley, director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health, said that while staff occupied buildings on the West campus, they had to suspend a tarp over computer equipment and file cabinets to prevent water damage on their property. “The poor oversight of St. Elizabeths by [the Department of Health and Human Services] and the District is inexcusable,” Collins said. “What was a valuable asset in the mid-1980s is today a massive liability.” At its present state of “rapid deterioration” said James McKay of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, it would cost “$400 to $450 per square foot to bring St. Elizabeths to normal occupancy levels … a cost between $440 million and $495 million.” Immediate plans for the West campus include “mothballing,” which is to occur once remaining District property is removed. Mothballing is when a building is deactivated and temporarily sealed to protect it from elements and to secure it from vandalism. A February cost estimate of mothballing the West campus is set at a minimum of $18 million. Even with these changes, the destruction to St. Elizabeths will continue until steps are taken to secure the building. “If a 182-acre historic landmark just two miles away from the Capitol can be so mismanaged, what confidence can we have that thousands of other federal buildings scattered across the country are being managed properly to preserve their value and ensure their best use?” Collins asked.