- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2012

When the U.S. Coast Guard opens its new headquarters in Southeast next year, it will house a cafeteria that is “significantly undersized” for the 4,400 people it expects to employ.

More important, in excess of 900,000 people live within a 15-minute drive of the sprawling St. Elizabeths Hospital site, a parcel of land that is divided into east and west campuses on roughly 350 acres in Ward 8.

These facts will be on display at a retailers’ convention in Las Vegas this week, where the District’s top planning officials will promote a restaurant pavilion on the east campus, an effort to kick-start what Mayor Vincent C. Gray has called “maybe the biggest project ever in the history of the city.”

The D.C. government is investing $113.5 million in the east campus during the next four years to build roads and other infrastructure that will support mixed-use development and, if Mr. Gray gets his way, compel technology companies to create a “tech hub” at the site.

The city views the effort as a significant part of its $2.3 billion portfolio of development projects in the planning stages or under way throughout the District, including the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Ward 4 and the massive CityCenterDC project downtown.

Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, and staff members plan to offer discounted leases to restaurant owners who show interest in opening temporary operations in the east campus pavilion during talks at the RECon Global Retail Real Estate Convention. The annual event is considered a key deal-making opportunity for city officials.

“We will be meeting with dozens of restaurant groups out there, and we’ll be talking with each one of them about the pavilion,” David Zipper, director of business and development and strategy, said in a phone interview Friday.

Mr. Gray’s administration is drumming up excitement for the project because it will serve as a cornerstone for massive development on the east campus over the next several years. Activity in the area of the pavilion - a facility that would house a cluster of restaurants, with a focus on food service by day and cultural events on nights and weekends - could also be a significant boon for Ward 8, where the unemployment rate is more than 20 percent. It is in a part of the city east of the Anacostia River that lacks sit-down dining options.

“The goal is to create a destination,” said Feras Qumseya, who serves as director of the St. Elizabeths Initiative for Mr. Hoskins.

In Las Vegas, the deputy mayor’s personnel will carry around cards that say “Let’s do lunch” and outline the attractive features of the St. Elizabeths campus. A strong pitch will be key, because “a lot of the retailers we’ll be meeting with, they don’t have a presence east of the river,” Mr. Zipper said,

“We want to bring them down here and have them test this market,” Mr. Hoskins told council members weeks ago at a breakfast meeting with Mr. Gray. “We can do innovative things like charge them one buck a month for six months, so that there’s no real heavy costs for them on the lease side.”

Ethan Warsh, project manager on the St. Elizabeths project for Mr. Hoskins, said officials will begin the design phase for the pavilion over the summer. Providing a visual description of the restaurant cluster is difficult at this stage, because they do not want to be locked into a specific aesthetic, he said.

Officials are hoping to open the pavilion in May 2013 to coincide with the Coast Guard’s move into its new facility. Looking ahead, the federal government is also consolidating its Department of Homeland Security buildings on the west campus and hoping to build a headquarters for the Federal Emergency Managment Agency on the east campus.

Mr. Gray said the city also scheduled meetings with four theater chains in Las Vegas, each of which is looking at a location at the St. Elizabeths campus or along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, which runs through the campus and into the Anacostia section of Southeast.

“Over the next three to five years.” he said, “You’re going to see an incredible metamorphosis of Ward 8 and specifically that area of the city.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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