Dignitaries break ground on Square 54 complex

An array of prominent city and University officials gathered for a rainy baptism of Square 54 Friday, and hailed the future commercial and residential center as the greatest development project in the District.

The groundbreaking marked the end of a three-year controversy between the University and the community over the former site of the GW Hospital. Developer Boston Properties will soon transform the space into an 84,000 square foot commercial arena.

Since the project’s conception, Foggy Bottom residents have expressed concern over increased commercial density, traffic and potential misuse of the space.

The lot is slated to include a pedestrian retail plaza, more than 300 units of affordable housing, commercial office space and a highly anticipated, full-service grocery store by its completion in 2011.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, University President Steven Knapp and others armed with gold-colored shovels, symbolically broke ground on what Fenty called “a project not just for GW, but also for the city.”

Officials praised the lot’s groundbreaking as a product of the cooperative relationship between the District and GW. Knapp called it a “shining example of what GW and the city can accomplish by working together.”

Fenty promised his administration’s full support in Square 54’s development and commended GW’s leadership for planning a project he said would benefit the whole city. The site is expected to garner $11.5 million in annual tax revenue for the District.

“GW could have just maximized the land and sold it off for what it’s worth, but that’s not what was done,” Fenty said.

Ray Ritchey, executive vice president of Boston Properties – which has leased the property from the University – praised the future complex for its “array of uses.” He highlighted the affordable housing the development will provide – something he said is a rarity to find in the area.

“This event is both the end of the planning process and the commencement of development that will be the site of the most important complex in D.C.,” Ritchey said.

Asher Corson, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Foggy Bottom area, said claims by Ritchey and others that Square 54 is the “greatest development project in the city” are somewhat exaggerated. He attributed most of its high-profile interest to its valuable location across from the Foggy Bottom Metro stop.

The 2007 graduate also acknowledged that even though the community was critical throughout the planning stages, there was “no point in dwelling on the past.” He said the development of the complex’s commercial uses – especially the grocery store – should please residents.

“Whatever else happens, I hope we can all be happy there’s a grocery store,” he said.

Corson said he is hopeful, but doubtful, that developers will consider Foggy Bottom residents input throughout the process. He said he has a meeting this week with GW to discuss further plans for the site.

Dale Johnson, owner of the Watergate Gallery and Frame Shop in the Watergate Complex, said she was initially skeptical of the traffic impact from the new development, but added she was eventually won over by the boons the complex would provide for the community.

Still somewhat skeptical, Johnson added, “I hope that it lives up to all the promises.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.