Dear PoPville – Soldiers Home Park?

Upshur and Rock Creek Church Rd, NW

“Dear PoPville,

I am sure Soldiers Home Park is a common topic, but haven’t see much on it since moving to the area last year. Has there been any discussion about reopening parts of the park to the public, especially given the new developments happening south of the Children’s Hospital, including the rumor that the reservoir by Howard is going to be opened up and developed into a new public space?

Does anyone know the history and politics around this issue?”

We had a rather contentious discussion about public access to the Soldiers Home grounds back in 2009. Since then a group called Friends of the Old Soldiers Home has been created so you should definitely check them out. There also has been and are planned many events on the property including those in coordination with the great Lincoln’s Cottage. And don’t forget the golf course (though I think prices have gone up a bit)…

65 Comment

  • I wish they would fix the fence along Rock Creek Church Road where a tree knocked part of it down.

    (and, it would be nice if they could take off the big chain link fence on top of the nice old iron fence)

  • This one is a no-brainer. Sell this land for billions and billions, take it and build a permanently-endowed and even nicer facility for even more veterans somewhere else. Caring for our veterans is too important a task to leave this pile of money on the table because some people are attached to the grounds. Build housing — not hundreds or thousands of units but tens of thousands. An entirely new city within the city. Something large enough to ease pricing pressure and really create an opportunity for first-time homebuyers from the middle class to live here. DC has an affordability crisis and nothing short of massive building will allow this city to ever return to being a home for the middle class. We should support our middle class and our veterans, and the current use of this policy is bad for both.

    • “Tens of thousands”? A joke, right?

      DC is the only major city in the U.S. that has a southern look and feel in its architecture and green spaces. So, rather than making our town a failed version of NY, Philly or Baltimore, I’d like to see DC retain this special quality. This means preserving as much green space as possible and not giving in to the over-building that will destroy DC’s unique character.

    • That’s a terrible idea. Can DC not have a bit of green space?

      • Its not accessible to the public or integrated with the rest of the city. No public transit, no parking, not within walking distance of many houses, etc. His idea is a pipedream, but it’s not wrong.

      • Accountering

        I think it is an interesting idea. Would need a massive investment in new transit to support tens of thousands of units, but I certainly don’t think it is a terrible idea.
        He is correct, if the idea is to house old soldiers, selling this plot for a ton of money would wound up supporting more old soldiers over the long term than keeping them on this very valuable, very underused land.

      • There’s Rock Creek, the National Mall and countless parks across the city. I would not exactly categorize DC as a concrete jungle.

    • There’s a clear disconnect here: where will you get “this pile of money” if DC builds/subsidizes a “new city within the city” for the purpose of “easing pricing pressure”? You can’t, how they say, have your cake and eat it too.

      • The pile of money is what developers would pay to develop it. The federal government would then take the windfall and build more housing for veterans elsewhere. Pretty straightforward, actually.

        • But then how are the developers paid to build this “city within a city”? Who pays them? The Feds? DC?

          • Accountering

            You can’t be serious right? They would build these apartments/townhouses to sell at a profit… For a development of this size, you could undoubtedly get large contributions from the developers to build the new street grid, connect to utilities, as well as a large contribution to the streetcar network or whatever else the city would like to get.

          • anon 3:25. what are you talking about?

          • No one. A developer (usually) finances construction on the capital market and then uses the sales/rents of the new structures pay off construction costs.

          • They build houses/condos or apartments and sell them/rent them for more than the cost of construction.

          • But if the developers sell at a profit, this housing won’t do a thing to bring downward pressure on housing prices in the area, hence the disconnect. How many new developments do you see now that are helping actually bring downward pressure on housing? New construction keeps raising the price/sqft.

          • I believe they would ‘develop’ the land and then sell the resulting product (the ‘development’) to willing buyers (‘customers’).

          • No, increasing demand outpacing supply is what’s raising the cost of housing.

          • You’re assuming that there’s enough new construction to meet the demand for housing.

          • I believe the idea is that demand for real estate in the finite space of D.C. currently outstrips supply, so greater supply generally would bring down prices.

          • Sure, in theory that totally makes sense. Though in reality new construction has been aimed at the wealthy. I just don’t see that changing without some large-scale intervention.

          • The problem is not only with supply. There are plenty of houses affordable to the middle class inside the District – right now MLS lists 161 single-family homes for less than $500K right in DC. Ah, but they are all located either EOTR or close to Eastern Ave – i.e., not in any of the hot hip neighborhoods.
            The problem with skyrocketing prices is not just a supply problem, it is a demand problem – demand has skyrocketed for living in some very specific neighborhoods, while other neighborhoods with plenty of housing are left languishing. One solution would be to cram ever more housing into the hot desirable neighborhoods (thereby possibly making them less hot and desirable). Another solution would be to invest in the not-so-hot neighborhoods so as to make them more desirable and channel the excess demand there. This also includes investing more into the suburbs so that younger people finally find the suburbs attractive and desirable again.

        • But doesn’t necessarily address the affordable housing issues since developers only develop the minimum affordable housing that they are forced to which is what less that 20% of the whole thing usually.

          No what we would get – and this is in response to the original commenter not just you – is 20% of affordable (if a “good” deal is negotiated) in the worst part (most inaccessible) of the physical space, with the rest being high-end boutique condos and some townhouse worth upwards of $800,000. Both types of which will be sold on spec to already rich investors many of whom will put the property on the market soon after it is completed with the price jacked up $100,000 because those are the only people who can afford to write a check the size of a mortgage – particularly if they aren’t going to live in it.

        • “how are the developers paid”–the most subtle troll bait ever or just ludicrous.

    • Right, DC has too little supply and the problem with current infill development is it’s super expensive. You have to spend days trying to appease the owners at the Iowa Condo who think they purchased exclusive rights to sunbeams. You have to carefully deconstruct the existing buildings and survey all the neighboring buildings to make sure you don’t damage them. It’s hugely expensive to build right next to another building. You need a million road closure permits. You have to grovel to the ANC. The developers currently build high-rent Class A units because that’s what can make such expensive developments still profitable. You can’t sell $200,000 units if its costs more than that to build them. But redeveloping this land would be relatively cheap because you’re building in what’s currently a primarily unused field. Suddenly you have Oklahoma City construction costs in the heart of DC.

    • I worked on basically this very thing as a GSA intern in 2005.

      Soldiers Home has an endowment, and has a sister facility in Mississippi. The two combined were running at an operating loss, and the Mississippi facility also had large capital costs due to Katrina, eating into that endowment, which exacerbated the operating deficit (since the interest from the endowment went to operations). They planned to slice off a chunk at the southern portion of the site for private development, which the economic downturn scuttled. I don’t think the plan has gotten new life.

      FWIW, I found the demands of the neighbors of the site pretty unreasonable during the comment period.

  • “including the rumor that the reservoir by Howard is going to be opened up and developed into a new public space,” I think this is most definitely a rumor with no truth to it. The land is owned by the corps of engineers and it is apparently a “public safety issue” to keep it closed.

    • There should at least be some sort of ongoing dialogue between the city and the army corps of engineers to figure out ways access can be expanded. This is isn’t some deserted reservoir in the middle of New Mexico. This abuts dense neighborhoods in what is basically the geographic center of the district. I’m sure they could do a better job of building a nicer jogging path and opening up some of the lands to the public while still maintaining the safety. The city needs to do what it can to make sure that the status quo is unacceptable and that they are being a bad neighbor.

      The main problem is that the hospitals, the army corps of engineer-controlled reservoir, the old soldiers home all developed in an era where this part of the city was either sparsely populated or becoming suburbanized as a contrast to the rest of the city. The city has changed, but these actors, their preferences and the power structures that enable their obstinance have not. It’s time for our Mayor and City Council to start doing what they can to chip away at their refusal to evolve with the times.

      • it’s a safety issue – serious undertow in reservoirs, can’t have people swimming in them, and people most assuredly would if this was opened up.

        • Yes, the current is strong. In my irresponsible youth we used to follow up an afternoon of jumping into the canal from the railroad bridge with a dip in the reservoir. You could use it like a water treadmill: swim up-current as fast as you could and make little or no forward progress.

    • Didn’t say they shouldn’t, just that “they” – government/a cohort of agencies – won’t. Anyone who has been in the neighborhood longer than a week knows how difficult and complicated the McMillan development is. But feel free to write a letter or something? Not a battle worth fighting for me.

    • The writer is probably referring to the development planned for McMillan Park on the east side of the reservoir. The latest on that development is that zoning said the planned development was too massive for the property and so the developer is working to reduce the size of the buildings. Another interesting issue is that, and I’m not sure if I have this right, but the National Planning Committee (?), is now saying that the buildings planned for McMillan will destroy the view shed and they may need to take action (at the federal level) if this plan is approved.

  • A couple things going on with the space. Creative Minds charter school will be moving into a building on the grounds, out of the current location on 16th street. I think this was supposed to happen this fall but they ran out of time, so it may happen next year (or not at all!). There is a long term plan to open up and redevelop large parts of the grounds that have been off limits, but nothing concrete from what i can tell. The fact that they are starting to surplus buildings to things like charter schools makes it sound likely that more change is inevitable down the line. As to the assertion in this post that the actual *reservoir* part of McMillan is under discussion to open up … umm, no. There is well-documented and current planning for the filtration plant between 1st and North Cap, but the actual reservoir grounds are Army Corps of Engineers turf and thus unlikely to be opened up. The only talk I’ve heard of anything there is moving the security perimeter fence in a few feet to recreate the walking path around the reservoir border and widen the sidewalk, with a small chance that the southern end that borders Bryant (up the large hill) would be repurposed. But, again, that would require a cut through that currently borders the pumping station, which is considered a “secure” area. None of this would likely even see consideration until the main McMillan development is complete.

  • @Jay. Keep dreaming. Not gonna happen.

  • I would also like to hear some substantiation of these rumors regarding the reservoir: does not have to be published, but the OP should at least give a meager source as to where this information came from.

    • I wonder if maybe the OP got the McMillan sand filtration site confused with the actual reservoir next to it.

  • I frequently walk my dog along the perimeter of the park and wish that it was open to me. It’s a beautiful piece of land, but seems underutilized. During the summer, I see a couple golf carts moving around in there, maybe a car or two. In winter, hardly anyone is there! Do they really need that much land?

    • I agree; it’s lovely. Wish it was more open to the public.

    • So all private landowners should be forced to cede all of their property beyond that which they “need” (to be determined by some sort of government apparatus) to the city for public use? Not in my America, comrade.

  • It’s sadly underutilized and would be a great benefit to the citizens of DC if it could somehow be opened for public use. The campus seems ideal for some kind of mixed use development–selling/leasing some of the lands for private use (retail, housing, office, etc) to finance public green space or other amenities, while keeping some of the historic buildings and the national cemetery as a memorial.

    It is my understanding that many of the buildings on the site are empty and basically falling apart. The population of veterans living there is in decline (I think there are less than 800 residents). Congress has, in the past, tried to shut parts of it down but entrenched opposition by the Army has stymied those efforts (what I heard was that a bunch of retired Generals really like playing golf there!)

    Not too long ago the Soldier’s Home conducted a study about what to do with an unused, massive parcel of land it owned on the east side of North Capitol Street. The study concluded that the way to maximize revenue for the benefit of the facility would be a long-term leas to private companies. Instead, then Senator Rick Santorum attached a rider to a bill that forced the Home to sell the land to Catholic University at far below market rates (he was known as the institutional Catholic church’s personal representative in the US Congress) Now that huge tract of land sits fenced off and is part of Catholic’s long term plan to build a “West Campus.” Not sure what the status is on the development but I don’t think it’s happening any time soon.

  • In NYC the city re-developed “Governors Island” into a great public park space accessible by a free ferry. They host concerts and shows, rent bikes to ride around the island, and invite local businesses to sell food and products on weekends. It’s a similar property with old military barracks and buildings that were otherwise crumbling and are now used for art installations and other public use. The OSH property is covered in old abandoned buildings with tons of architectural charm and history that could be great public meeting spaces and the land is ideal for jogging/biking/sports fields. There is some history around DC gaining access to develop the property. But if McMillan gets developed, OSH would be an iconic city park splitting the upper NE and NW quadrants and could be home to an East-West biking/running trail via Scale Gate Rd. For those of us not rich enough to live on Rock Creek Park, OSH offers hope of a beautiful large-scale park near home.

  • I believe that there could be some sort of win-win with this land. It could remain in the Fed Gov control and still house the veterans, but possibly open up some areas to the public – a playground, park, community garden for the larger neighborhood, walking/running paths, dog run, etc. I think the current occupants at the Old Soldier’s Home would probably welcome some more interaction with people, animals, little kiddos.
    I’ve loved the Family days that the Old Soldier’s Home has hosted – opening up the grounds and interaction with everyone. Wish we could achieve more of that with this beautiful space that could be enjoyed by all.

  • Could I get access if I have a military CAC? I run along the Rock Creek Park side, but have no good place to go once I do that stretch. I would love to run inside.

  • The AFRH has been a really good neighbor of late. I’m registered to participate in the 5K race there next month, and I have been there on several other occasions when they have opened the grounds up to the public (e.g 4th of July fireworks viewing). I remember the contentious debate in 2009, and the phrase “egregious use of urban greenspace” might have passed my lips once or twice. Prior to 2009, I can’t remember a single positive interaction with AFRH despite living close nearby…for whatever reason, things have changed a lot for the better.

    • It has changed due to the hard work of some great people working with the home through Friends of the Soldiers’ Home. They are awesome people.

  • A few things people should understand about Soldiers’ Home:

    -It’s budget is apparently approved by congress, but it is not funded by tax payers money
    -It’s been there since the mid 1800’s to serve for Veterans… before any of us moved to the neighborhood.

    With that said, this property should really be seen as private property. I pass a lot of beautiful places yards and houses that I would love to spend time in… but they are not mine!

    I think instead of people asking what the property could do for THEM, they should be interested in what they could do for the VETERANS. If you would like to have some access to the grounds and some cool opportunities, I suggest joining the Lincoln Cottage for one of their events, etc. They recently gave the opportunity to climb the tower and enter some of the buildings with their guides. Pretty neat and a good cause too (they are a private non profit).

  • Where many, if not most of you see a development opportunity, I see one of the spaces and institutions that, for me, make DC “home”. I grew up within walking distance of Soldiers Home, and remember when the grounds were more accessible to the public than they have been in recent years. What saddens and scares me is how many people see a space like this — and feel that the best way to use it is to stuff it with more condos. It’s like the new ideal is high rise condos, with Metro access so that people can run smoothly from home, to work, to gym, to bar, then home again, without ever stopping to feed the ducks at the duck pond, or to enjoy a rare and welcome bit of nature in the middle of an long established neighborhood. It’s funny how many people in recent years have actively sought out Washington as their new home. often leaving cookie cutter suburbs to do so — only to support eradication of many of the things that make our neighborhoods and our city unique and wonderful.

  • Exactly! I moved to DC 20 years ago because it wasn’t Manhattan or Chicago (or Crystal City) – but a graceful city full of older rowhomes and shady streets. Maybe it’s a generational thing. But I’m sad that so many people only think about “urban” as dense high rises.

  • Someone who hasn’t figured out how the world works?

  • The ARFH was authorized, constructed, and initially funded with tax dollars. Your comment sounds like “Keep the gubmint out of my Medicare”.

  • Try reading it again. I want to keep the government IN and developers out — to ensure that this space remains a resource for the veterans and the community as a whole — not just for those with deeper pockets and more limited interests.

  • We are talking over 160 years here. Plus it was funded by money taken out of Mexico by Winfield Scott.

  • About ten years ago they proposed developing a portion of the land to fund the home. There was significant resistance from the community and the case for development wasn’t helped by the fact that the representatives of the developer and the Home were absolutely terrible at PR.

  • What a waste. I wouldn’t mind volunteering and playing chess or bridge with some old-timers. Maybe I’ll look into that.

  • You should connect with the Friends of the Old Soldiers’ Home.

  • Would you propose the same for Rock Creek Park and/or The National Mall? Why/Why not?

  • My question was for those proposing the sale and development of this land

  • Don’t tell people about the golf course. It’s already to crowded.

  • If a “southern look and feel” means massive sprawl and horrible traffic (e.g. Atlanta, Houston, et al.), I’ll take as many condos and town homes as I can get, thanks.
    We already have Rock Creek Park, Glover Archibald Park, and many other “large green spaces.” These more than satisfy our park needs, judging from how little crowding they seem to experience. For some reason we still have a substantial minority of people here who do not wish to face the fact that D.C. is, in fact, a city. I do not understand why these people do not move to places zoned more to their liking. Say, the VA and MD exurbs.

  • Those parks may satisfy YOUR park needs but please don’t presume that your needs are equivalent to “ours”. And as to moving to a place more to my liking – well, the house that I grew up in on Third and Varnum streets suits me quite well, and has for many decades.

  • No, it’s about public land, public money and the public good. This space is surrounded by dense urban development, and it actually acts as a giant fence in the city, preventing access from one part of the city to the other, in addition to forcing development in farther flung parts of the city. An actual private landlord would have sold this property to developers 150 years ago, and it would look a look like the rest of Petworth, so I’m assuming your comparison to communism is a joke.

  • I am a Creative Minds parent, and renovations at the new building at AFRH are already under way. My understanding is that CM has a long term lease.

    The AFRH has a number of lovely community events and I encourage all of you to participate. It is a lovely green space, and I agree that the amount of green space in DC is one of many things that makes this city special. I heard that the July 4 event was packed, and the Oktoberfest event is also reportedly a big hit. I am excited for my family, particularly my kids, to have more community events with the veterans. It’s going to be a win-win for everyone.

Comments are closed.