Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When auctioning off SSA - don't overlook the opportunities!

This week the General Service Administration announced that the Social Security complex west will go back to auction.

in 2014, as if the Westside didn't have enough problems, the federal government added a big headache by abandoning its downtown Social Security offices on Mulberry and Greene Streets, all 1.1 million square feet of it, the entire 11 acre lot. Instead of buying things at the Lexington Market, Trinacria Delicatessen or getting their hair done at a "Perfect Ten" salon, those 1600 federal employees now sit isolated on what used to be a Metro parking lot on Reisterstown Plaza. When Security West was opened in 1980, it was hailed as a major step in the revitalization of the already then ailing Westside. While locating the workers there didn't rescue the Westside from further decline, their demise certainly certainly won't help.
Suburb, dowtown, sixties freeways and seventies office monsters meet
in an unhappy mix at Franklin Street and Martin Luther King Blvd.
The new SSA facility on the Metro lot is praised as transit oriented development. As if the downtown location wasn't near transit as well! (2 blocks from Metro). In 2009 then SUN reporter Ed Gunts wrote that
According to public officials, the 15-story tower and two five-story wings no longer meet the needs of the Social Security Administration for a variety of reasons, including technological inadequacy and the security risk posed by a sky bridge over a major highway. 
This, frankly, sounds like a bunch of horse manure. A facility that large that had just been updated shortly before it was abandoned should not be "obsolete" only 30 years after it was completed unless it was totally ill conceived to begin with. Even less convincing is the argument that those who push social security papers or punch numbers into computers would be in a high risk when they sit in a portion of the complex that forms a bridge over route 40. Admittedly, the demolition of that bridge portion of the building would certainly bring about many urban design benefits.
The SSA complex is big but typical for its
period (it opened 1980) it doesn't engage
with Franklin St. (photo ArchPlan)

Alas, sticking with horse language, this SSA horse is out of the barn and the massive complex sits there, empty being nothing but a big drag on the vitality of the area and costing taxpayers millions to be secured and conditioned.  So if it was somewhat surprising to learn that GSA who manages the buildings had no idea what to do with the vacated structures, it comes as no surprise that they are very eager to get rid of it. In a first round of the various disposition attempts they tried to find a general contractor who would barter. Like in I fix your GSA property's roof if you give me the old Security West complex. Of course, this idea didn't pan out, even if the orientation session in 2014 was well attended by folks who wanted to see the innards of this albatross. Then came round two, public auction and two offers around $10 million which should really be a steal, considering that the thing cost already $90 million to build in 1980, not to mention the millions that went into the recent facade improvement work. Alas, both deals fell through and now comes round three, an auction with no minimum.

It is a question, though, if anybody wants the monster even for $1. Who other than the federal government has 1600 people around to stack them up in an office building? It looks like everybody thought that the University of Maryland, hemmed in and strapped for land would be eager to swallow the crow. But no. As UM biopark manager Jane Schaab explained to me some time ago, yes, the University could use some space, but not nearly as much as the SSA complex offers. Taking it all, either for renovation or for mothballing would be way too expensive, either way.
the massive concrete overpasses of the "Highway to Nowhere" are
immediately west of the SSA complex and isolate an already
isolationist design further (photo: ArchPlan)

To tackle the big white elephant, it may be necessary to take a view that looks beyond even the large 11 acre former SSA compex. It is the east end of the "highway to nowhere" and its architecture and character of withdrawal from the street is not only a reflection of the way how federal facilities were designed in the 70ies but is also a response to Martin Luther King as a downtown bypass and the maligned US 40 freeway with its overpasses creating a suburban extremely auto oriented setting. For future users and for the entire Westside it would be a great improvement to "normalize" the US 40/MLK intersection by taking the freeway overpasses down and by orienting buildings on the large parking lots and greenspaces that would become available once the overpasses were flattened.
A rebuilt intersection of Mulberry and Franklin
Streets at Martin Luther King Boulevard would
allow a even larger but much better development
(design: ArchPlan)

Security West: our tax dollars at work. Sometimes even a liberal can understand why government has become so unpopular. It is time for city, the university and GSA to come together and plan a bit more comprehensively than having fire sales.If approached comprehensively, the site offers huge opportunities for a development that repairs past sins and for connecting the Westside better to the neighborhoods of West Baltimore.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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