No Plans Yet for Hospital

Posted May 3, 2005 at 3:55pm

Efforts to rehabilitate the Old Naval Hospital at 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE have come to a halt as the two proposals being considered were rejected last month.

When the initial Request for Proposals process was opened in 2003, it was expected that there would be a “whole slew of options to choose from” in regards to how to develop and use the former hospital site, said Vincent Morris, spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams (D).

“I think [Williams’] hope was that the city would get a dozen or more proposals,” Morris said. The mayor was “just not absolutely convinced that the proposals he ended up getting were the best way to go.”

However, after almost two years have been spent considering the two proposals that were received, some in the Capitol Hill community are wondering if the effort to renovate the historical site is back to square one.

The large brick building served as the Naval Hospital from 1866 to 1906. The federal government transferred ownership of the building to the District in the 1960s, and through the years several service organizations have occupied the building. Most recently the site has been used by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B for office space and meetings, but the building hasn’t had a solid tenant in years.

Greg Richey, president of the Friends of the Old Naval Hospital, said it’s as if the government is saying, “We don’t care what you’ve been doing, we don’t care what you want, we’re going to do something else with that building.

“The city has mismanaged the building for decades and now that the community has worked so hard. … We can’t expect anything to happen, just like they haven’t had anything happen before now.”

The Friends of the Old Naval Hospital is a community-based group that has been working for more than five years toward three main goals: restoring the building, researching the building’s history and educating the community about the history and role of the building.

“We felt like we were a catalyst on behalf of the building,” Richey said, noting various tasks the group has done for the building in the past. “We get to the end of the process where a RFP is issued, a recommendation is made and then the mayor just throws it all back in our face.”

The recommendation Richey mentioned first came from the Old Naval Hospital Selection Committee, made up of representatives from five District agencies plus one nonvoting member, which is Richey. The selection committee was formed by the Office of Property Management, which has been working closely with the mayor’s office and Councilmember Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) throughout the entire RFP process. The committee’s recommendation to OPM Director Carol Mitten was then forwarded on to Williams.

The committee recommended a proposal put forth by the Art of Living Foundation, a nonprofit organization led by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The group’s proposal, which did not call for significant alterations to the historical building, stated that the space would be used as a wellness and community center with “almost 88 percent of the building” dedicated to community use. The foundation also said it would require no public money as it had all money for the project on hand or committed.

“We feel we have met and exceeded” the requirements of the proposal process, said Filiz Odabas-Geldiay of the Art of Living Foundation. “We are hoping that the mayor somehow sees that we would be a good asset to the community; we haven’t fully given up on the idea.”

The other group to submit a proposal, the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, sought to create the Hill Center, which would move the Southeast branch of the D.C. Public Library to the site and also include a community center. The foundation, whose board members include Ambrose and former Metropolitan Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., would have raised money from federal and city government sources, in addition to private contributions.

The renovation of the site is estimated to cost anywhere from $6 million to $10 million. Back in 2003 when the RFP process started, $433,000 was in the D.C. budget for the restoration of the building. In the fiscal 2005 budget, $3 million was added to that amount, and another $3 million is proposed for fiscal 2006, according to OPM Special Assistant Aimee Occhetti. The $433,000 has been committed to renovating the building’s stairs opposite Pennsylvania Avenue, Occhetti said.

Identical rejection letters were sent to each group, informing them that “The balance between a reliable, independent source of funding; respectful restoration of the landmark building and grounds; and a dynamic community-oriented use was not achieved by either proposal to the District’s satisfaction.”

However, Morris said what’s happening right now is a “short extension … to make one more scrubbing of the whole process to make sure that any other good ideas out there get consideration.”

Before the RFP process started, the Old Naval Hospital was one of several sites in the District considered for use as the mayoral mansion.

“I think the hope was to find a building that would be able to house more community-oriented events, and a mansion is limiting in some ways,” Morris said.

But now with the two proposals rejected, there’s no telling what will happen with the historical site.

“We think the mayor rejected the Art of Living [Foundation] for political reasons,” Richey said, adding that the mayor’s political supporters “don’t want an ‘outside organization’ using the building.”

Morris said it’s possible that changes could be made to the two existing proposals to “make them acceptable to everyone,” or the entire RFP process could be reopened. While he said the mayor hopes that another RFP process is not necessary, he added that “all those options are on the table.”

“I know it’s frustrating for people in the community, but all the mayor has asked for is a little more time,” Morris said. “It’s important enough that he doesn’t want to rush it.”