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On Wednesday, community health center Whitman-Walker Health took a step toward long-term sustainability when it broke ground on a new redevelopment project at its Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center site, at 1701 14th St. NW.
The project is a joint venture entered into with Fivesquares Development, a local real estate development company, that will see the construction of a new six-story, mixed-use building that will feature retail stores and restaurants on its ground floor, office space, underground parking, and rental apartments, including a portion that will include affordable housing.
Whitman-Walker, which remains majority owner of the project, will anchor the building, occupying a number of offices on the building’s second floor, and operating a community space on the first floor.
Naseema Shafi, the deputy executive director at Whitman-Walker, said that some of the services that will be housed at the site include the health center’s robust legal services program, including its renowned gender and name change clinic and immigration advocacy services, as well as its research program and its nutrition, yoga, and reiki massage services for clients. Those services have been temporarily relocated during construction, which begins this fall and should be finished by 2020.
The community space can be used for meetings or gatherings, and utilized as part of the health center’s outreach to specific communities, including youth, Shafi added.
“Because of our history, because of our place in the community, we really wanted to make sure that over the long haul, we could control what’s going on here, whether that’s programming for the community, whether it’s for economic development to support the health center long-term, we felt those were important elements for us to have,” said Whitman-Walker Health Executive Director Don Blanchon.
In response to concerns from community members and historic preservation advocates, the new structure will rehabilitate and incorporate both the original Elizabeth Taylor building and the Belmont Garage building currently on site into its final design, Andy Altman, the managing principal partner of Fivesquares Development, told the crowd of about 75 people who attended the groundbreaking.
Most of Whitman-Walker’s medical, pharmacological, and HIV/STD testing services were previously moved to the health center’s 1525 building, located at 1525 14th St. NW, in May 2015.
Among the dignitaries who spoke at and participated in the groundbreaking were Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District’s non-voting representative in Congress, D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services HyeSook Chung, D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, and D.C. Office of Planning Director Eric Shaw.
All special guests, including board members, top staff, and officials, were presented with multi-colored hard hats and shovels — arranged in order to mimic the colors of a rainbow — which they used to scoop up dirt in a symbolic ceremony.
Some of the speakers, and many of those in attendance at the ceremony, publicly marveled at the proposed redevelopment project, the role it will play as a symbol of the development that continues to occur in and around the 14th Street corridor, and the growth of Whitman-Walker from its early days as a crucial lifeline for people who were suffering and dying from AIDS.
“For me, this is another milestone for Whitman-Walker,” Norton said in prepared remarks. “It’s another occasion to thank Whitman-Walker for giving indispensable leadership for almost 40 years, as our city learned about HIV and AIDS, and what to do about it. It’s another occasion to thank Whitman-Walker for being first and fearless. It’s another occasion to thank Whitman-Walker for your critical role in rescuing so many in our city from ignorance and prejudice.”
The officials also expressed hope that by achieving financial sustainability, Whitman-Walker would be able to gain some capital that could be used to support direct-care operations, particularly at its Max Robinson Center in Southeast Washington.
“We’re really excited about this project, because any opportunity that Whitman-Walker has to leverage any of our resources in order to offer more to the community is really important to us,” Shafi told Metro Weekly. “There’s a huge need, especially for genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, and trans people, and people of color within those communities, and offering more ways in which they can engage in health. It’s a huge opportunity for us to offer more services, and we have a big responsibility to do a lot of those services in Wards 7 and 8, where a lot of those communities live, so they don’t have to cross the [Anacostia] river to access more care here.”
Cornelius Baker, a former board member who also served as executive director of the then-Whitman-Walker Clinic from January 2000 to December 2004, said he saw the redevelopment project as a sign of Whitman-Walker’s commitment to the next generation to continue its work combating the HIV epidemic and providing culturally competent care to the LGBTQ community.
“This is an important moment. But I think what’s really important is that it cements the vision that Dr. [Richard] Karpawich had when he gave us the money for this building. Certainly, the vision that [former Executive Director] Jim Graham had in acquiring the building, and looking at how we would expand and maintain our footprint here in Washington,” Baker said. “It was our vision that this would always be our home and that we would serve our community, and I think that expanding that and moving it forward, with an eye toward financial success through the mixed-use facility, this is the moment we’ve worked for, and it’s just a really great day, and a great gift to the next generation.”