St. Elizabeths Hospital: A Q&A on Section 4(f)

Posted on: February 5th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently submitted comments to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regarding its Section 4(f) evaluation of the proposed redevelopment of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act is the strongest federal preservation law available because it prohibits federal approval of or funding for transportation projects that "use" any historic site, public park, recreation area or wildlife refuge unless there is "no feasible and prudent alternative" to the use of the site and the project includes "all possible planning to minimize harm."

The following Q&A is meant to shed light on both our ongoing work to protect St. Elizabeths Hospital, as well as some of the lingering questions and controversies surrounding its proposed redevelopment as the new headquarters for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Question: What does the development of St. Elizabeths have to do with the FHWA?

Shepherd Parkway

Shepherd Parkway (Click Image for Full View)

The scale of the development at St. Elizabeths (and the decision to relocate 14,000 employees to the proposed Homeland Security headquarters there) would require expanded access to I-295 in order to avoid gridlock. Any interchange construction or expansion connecting to an interstate highway requires approval by FHWA, regardless of whether or not the road construction will be paid for with federal transportation dollars. That FHWA approval triggers the need for a Section 4(f) evaluation.

The current plans for St. Elizabeths include a major expansion of an existing interchange on I-295, the installation of massive retaining walls (up to 57 feet high) along steep slopes, and the construction and widening of additional access roads. This proposed access road has the potential to impose substantial adverse impacts on a large swath of land owned by the National Park Service (NPS) known as Shepherd Parkway.

Question: Why is this decision so crucial?

All federal agencies involved in the Homeland Security headquarters project – including the General Services Administration (GSA), the Department of Homeland Security and the National Capital Planning Commission – have adopted an explicit condition that the project will not go forward unless and until an access road through Shepherd Parkway is approved. Even construction of the Coast Guard Headquarters building, which is currently being designed as the first new building on the campus, cannot begin without approval of the new access road. Meanwhile, as the owner of Shepherd Parkway, NPS has refused to allow its land to be paved over to facilitate a project that would destroy public parkland and irreparably damage a National Historic Landmark. Thus, if NPS refuses to transfer its land and/or FHWA concludes that the stringent legal requirements of Section 4(f) have not been satisfied, GSA will be forced to develop a different and less harmful plan for St. Elizabeths Hospital.

Question: Why was the Section 4(f) evaluation completed after GSA's decision to develop the Homeland Security headquarters at St. Elizabeths?

Section 4(f) evaluations typically occur during the early development phase of a project, and are performed contemporaneously with a National Environmental Policy Act evaluation and a Section 106 evaluation. These evaluations are published in a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is circulated for comment by the public. Federal agencies use this document to assess a wide range of possible alternatives before undertaking work on a particular project. By conducting Section 4(f) evaluations early in the process, federal agencies have a greater opportunity to evaluate all the possible ways a project can be designed to avoid or minimize harm.

This, however, was not the case for St. Elizabeths, since the Section 4(f) evaluation occurred after GSA’s final EIS was issued. By this point in the process, GSA had already determined the course of action it would take, which severely narrowed and foreclosed the range of alternatives to avoid and minimize harm that FHWA considered in its own evaluation.

Click here for the full text of the National Trust's comments on the Environmental Impact Statement.

Question: What points were made in the National Trust’s comments?

Our comments on the Section 4(f) evaluation of St. Elizabeths focus on numerous flaws in FHWA’s analysis. In particular, FHWA made several false assumptions and omissions in its limited evaluation, failing to fully examine the project’s entire transportation management plan. FHWA also neglected to consider the long-running objections by the Department of the Interior and NPS to the use of Shepherd Parkway. FHWA’s failure to consider these objections directly conflicts with its own Section 4(f) policy. All of these flaws led to a blatantly deficient analysis of the project, which the National Trust and NPS believe is not legally sufficient to satisfy Section 4(f)’s requirements (i.e. there is “no feasible and prudent alternative” to the use of a protected site and the project includes “all possible planning to minimize harm”).

The full text of the National Trust’s comments is available here. In addition to our comments, other comments objecting to the 4(f) evaluation were submitted by the Department of the Interior/National Park Service and the Maryland Native Plant Society, Inc.

Learn more about St. Elizabeths Hospital, which was listed in 2002 as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Places, and visit the project's online document center for more information.

 - Ross Bradford

Ross Bradford is an assistant general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.