After ten years of planning and possibly a thousand public meetings, the redevelopment of the 110-acre Walter Reed site reached a visible milestone last month. In late June, a contractor began the demolition of Building 2, better known as the “new” hospital building at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Fern Street NW.
Spectrum of Emotions
This demolition triggers a series of events that will change the shape of the retail, office and residential scene in the District’s Ward 4 neighborhoods. As such, the tangible view of that hulking, brutalist style building coming down piece by piece has elicited a range of emotions from neighbors and others with a history at that site.
Several neighbors that I spoke to are extremely excited about what we are witnessing. They view the demolition as a catalyst to opportunity for the neighborhood. In a region with one of the nation’s lowest retail vacancy rates, our stretch of Georgia Avenue NW has an unusually large number of vacant storefronts. Neighbors are eager to activate our main street and hope that the planned town center complex that will rise in place of the hospital will be the spark that brings our retail district to life.
There are others who lament the change. My friend Veronica is a nurse at the current Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, but she spent the bulk of her career right here in that hospital. She calls the demolition “a sad day in history” and says, “I feel like I’ve lost a family member”. Many others who recovered from injuries, cared for patients, or were even born in that hospital feel the same way.
Finally, the demolition of the 2.6 million square foot, concrete re-enforced building has provoked another emotion: fear. Nearby residents are extremely concerned about the amount of dust that is being created by the demolition process. Neighbors on Fern Street and across Georgia Avenue have reported seeing large clouds of dust floating from the site and over the property line towards their homes. These reports and questions prompted 4B02 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner to call a “Walter Reed Demolition Safety Meeting” Monday night at the Engine 22 Fire Station Meeting Room.
Before we get to the meeting highlights, I wanted to show you a video of what I observed at the site the next day. I am not a demolition expert, but I am 6’9” and I can see over the construction fencing.
After watching the video, what do you think? Personally, what stands out to me is how freakin’ cool it would be to operate that high-reach excavator! The driver of that machine gets to play a real-life game of Jenga every day for the next 14 months.
Secondly, I did see a cloud of dust rising from the area where giant chunks of the building were snipped off and crashed to the ground. I don’t doubt that nearby neighbors witnessed the same. The boom of the excavator has hoses attached that spray water over the area that gets crushed by the vice clamps. Down below, I saw someone spraying the landing site with a firehouse.
But what of the cloud of dust? That’s a Rorschach test if I’ve ever seen one. What appears to be a cataclysmic amount of dust to one person may seem trivial to another. We learned that there are inspectors on site who visually inspect this activity periodically. What do their evaluations reveal and how is what they see different than to the untrained eye?
On short notice, a representational panel of stakeholders was assembled to discuss this matter with the community. In addition to master developer managing partner Vicki Davis, Randall Clarke from the Local Redevelopment Authority was there. Also present were Richard Jackson, Deputy Director of the District’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), Scott Anderson, a manager from the demolition contractor North Star (no relation!), and Hugh Grainer, an environmental engineering consultant from HB Engineering.
What followed was a fairly technical discussion on how the demolition process works and the regulatory and reporting requirements. Please feel free to watch the video of the meeting here if you’re interested in seeing the details.
One of my major takeaways was the input by Scott Anderson, the demolition contractor. He explained that the demolition is “conventional”, meaning that the building is being taken down piece by piece from the top down. No explosives are being used. He described the process as “very controlled, very limited, and very safe.” Water from firehoses is used for dust mitigation. They also currently have two Dust Boss units on site and two more are on the way. The Dust Boss machines atomize water droplets and blow them over the work site with a fan to greatly reduced the amount of fugitive dust particles that escape from the property.
Here is a video that explains how the machines work.
He stated that bringing down a concrete building of that size is going to produce noise and is going to product dust. However, the dust is not “problematic to person or property”. All hazardous materials like lead and asbestos have already been removed from the building.
Mr. Jackson from DOEE indicated that the contractor has been in compliance with city regulations and permits regarding dust mitigation. The city has a local air quality monitor, but it is located at the Takoma Recreation Center, which is probably too far away to be useful in this case.
The Way Forward
The plan to move forward has two major components: Dust Control Plan evaluation and communication.
HB Engineering, the environmental consultant, will be on site full-time for the next two weeks to monitor the work activity. From that perspective, they will be able to evaluate the current dust control plan and augment it, if necessary, with further training or changes to the work procedures.
DOEE will continue to do random inspections and visual monitoring.
Commissioner Topolewski suggested a more robust communication plan to more effectively share information with both the immediate neighbors and the community at large. As Mr. Clarke noted, the LRA meetings are nice, but they only reach about seventy people. There needs to be an effective way to share information with the wider community. Ms. Davis appeared to be receptive to those suggestions.
From everything I learned at the meeting and since, it appears that the demolition contractor is doing everything that they are supposed to do. The Dust Boss units are state-of-the-art (though they did not appear to be operating while I was viewing the work on Tuesday afternoon.)
Our community is composed of highly educated and accomplished individuals, but sometimes we tend to take things to 11, when a volume of seven would do. None of us are demolition professionals. Before we escalate this into the next national environmental disaster, we should all do a lot more reading, listening and learning about how this process normally works. When we are better informed, we’ll be in a stronger position to spot any anomalies that are present at this site.
I want to send a special shout-out to two ladies and neighbors who made Monday’s meeting possible and accessible. First, thank you to current 4B02 ANC Commissioner Tanya Topolewski for organizing the meeting. With emotions running high, this was not an easy discussion to moderate and she did a fantastic job.
Great appreciation also goes to Erin Palmer for streaming the meeting live on Facebook. You can watch the recording of the video here and learn more about her candidacy for ANC 4B02 Commissioner at her web site erinforanc.com.