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Saving St. E's for UDC
(Published April 17, 2006)

City residents aren't hearing much about what would be lost to the public if a huge land swap between the D.C. and federal governments - proposed by the Williams and Bush administrations, with the support of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and suburban members of Congress - stays on the fast track to congressional approval.

City leaders have promoted the deal primarily for the "economic development" benefits that may be derived from placing large land areas along the Anacostia waterfront under the control of local officials, who already are talking with developers about carving up the public's waterfront for private gains.

However, little has been said about federal plans for the historic west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, over which the D.C. government would relinquish all claim under the proposed swap. The city government currently controls St. E's architecturally significant landmarked buildings, which were abandoned years ago when changes in the law shrank the in-patient population of the public hospital for the mentally ill.

The sprawling Southeast Washington campus, located along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, has breathtaking views of the nation's capital that are largely hidden behind a brick wall that was built for protection of patients. It will likely remain off-limits to the public if the federal government gets its way. Federal officials are proposing that the area become the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, a function that almost guarantees the need for government clearance to set foot inside the wall.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams created a racially tinged uproar early in his first term when he ineptly proposed moving the University of the District of Columbia from its Connecticut Avenue campus in Northwest Washington to St. E's west campus. Stung by a variety of slurs questioning his racial sensitivity as his mayoralty began and accused of trying to give away UDC's valuable real estate to wealthy developers, Williams quickly backed away from his proposal.

He shouldn't have. St. E's west campus provides a nearly perfect environment for growing the District's only public university into the first-class institution of higher learning that it needs to become. Located a short distance from two Metrorail stations along one of the city's major thoroughfares, the campus would provide the university with space to build dormitories for attracting out-of-state students. And a public university's stewardship of the historic structures would guarantee public access to them and public oversight of their preservation.

Congress -- which blithely allowed UDC's intended main campus site to become a convention center - should derail the current land swap legislation and take a closer look at how it would better benefit the people of the District of Columbia to transfer jurisdiction over the St. E's west campus to the D.C. government for exclusive use by its federal land-grant university, UDC. Proceeds from the sale of UDC's Van Ness campus could be earmarked to create an endowment toward meeting the university's operating costs.

A real campus for UDC, rather than its current crumbling office building environment, would help the university finally attract the private contributions and tuition dollars it needs to build nationally acclaimed academic departments in the nation's capital.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator