Homeland Security breaks ground at new headquarters

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Emily Long/GovExec.com

The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday held a ceremonial groundbreaking for its new headquarters at the former Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.

The renovation of the former psychiatric institution is the largest federal building project since the Pentagon was built, and will house nearly 14,000 DHS employees. The first phase of the project is the construction of an environmentally sustainable, LEED-certified Coast Guard facility, scheduled for completion in 2013.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during Wednesday's ceremony that housing the majority of the department's employees on a single campus will help ensure that DHS has a common purpose, mission and culture. The department currently has 22,000 personnel dispersed over nearly 40 buildings in the Washington area. "[This will] streamline communication and build the culture of one DHS," she said.

Following the move to Saint Elizabeths, scheduled for completion in 2016, the remaining 8,000 employees will be spread out over six to eight locations in Washington, including the department's current headquarters on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington. The new campus is near the Anacostia Metro station, while current headquarters are not Metro-accessible.

The project also could be a catalyst for reviving D.C.'s long-neglected Ward 8, according to officials. The area, in Southeast Washington, historically has been economically depressed and isolated from official Washington. Napolitano emphasized that DHS employees will be neighbors of and active participants in the Ward 8 community, which is represented on the city council currently by former Washington Mayor Marion Barry. As construction of the new facility begins, area residents will be able to take advantage of jobs and apprenticeship opportunities.

"[This is] a section of the city where the federal government has never built before," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. "The federal government is crossing the Anacostia today, my friends. They're going to try us and they're going to like us." The Anacostia River separates the bulk of Washington proper from Ward 8, and has served historically as a political and economic dividing line between the city's affluent and low-income neighborhoods.

Saint Elizabeths, built in 1855, was the first federally operated institution for the mentally ill and part of the campus is still used for that purpose. Fifty-two of the original 62 buildings on the new DHS site will be revitalized and reused for agency functions. The department is documenting historical features to save, which will guide architectural plans. Eight of 10 buildings being torn down are greenhouses that are too fragile to renovate.

"[The General Service Administration's] work will preserve the key historic features of this National Historic Landmark and provide an energy efficient campus for DHS," said Paul Prouty, GSA acting administrator.

The project's total budget is approximately $3.4 billion, including $650 million in Recovery Act funding.

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