Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is it better for the FBI to stay in DC?

We now know that Trump's infrastructure may include a wall at the Mexican border with solar panels but doesn't include a new FBI headquarters building. Not in Greenbelt, Land­over, or Springfield, Va. This according to advance reports about a decision of the federal government to be formally announced by the GSA today.
The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in 1975
A swap deal that has been on the table for years now seems to be aborted. It had envisioned that a development team would build a new FBI headquarters for free or for a much reduced cost in turn for obtaining the current site on Pennsylavnia Avenue in downtown DC for commercial redevelopment.

The theory of a cost effective bartering deal seemed plausible, except that it wasn't free at all. The Obama adminsitration had asked Congress to set aside $1.4 billion for it, the State of Maryland had promised hundreds of millions of infrastructure investment for its two potential replacement sites. Congress never put that kind of money into the budget.

The birth of the currently existing headquarters was similarly expensive ($126m – then a record for a government building and twice the original estimate) and time consuming and subject of a lot of back and forth. After several re-designs and careful review the design was approved in 1964 by the National Capital Planning Commission. It was several times modified before and after that approval for security and cost purposes. The approved plan consisted of 2,800,876 square feet of space for 7,090 employees. Height limits of 107 feet along Pennsylvania Avenue and 160 feet along E Street complying with what the Pennsylvania Avenue Advisory Council had suggested and and District of Columbia regulations required. The building wasn't ready for move in before 1974, a full ten years after the design approval.

There are elements in the President's decision to pull the plug on the relocation plan one could sympathize with or even rejoice about:
  • Smart growth: The big government functions should be in the capital of the nation and not in the suburbs, that is what a capital is for
  • Waste reduction: The current FBI building is only 43 years old and should not be demolished if one considers embedded energy and cultural heritage. Rehabilitation should trump demolition whenever possible
  • Simplification: The complicated swap deal the FBI had in mind is much more complicated than a regular real estate deal and requires a forced marriage between two very different skill sets needed for the construction of a suburban government campus and the commercial redevelopment of a prominent inner urban site
On the other hand the decision to simply abort a procurement process that has been in the works for many years and has absorbed considerable resources sets an extremely bad precedent:
  • Millions of public and private dollars have been wasted by the government agencies preparing bid documents and private developers trying to put viable bid packages together. 
  • The cancellation violates the trust that the private sector must have in the government bid and procurement process
  • the current building isn't big enough and already the FBI rents additional space for its 11,000 member workforce. Should any rehabilitation be considered, additional space is still needed
The Hoover Building (Photo: Washington Post)
The yanking of the deal is reminiscent of Governor Hogan pulling the plug on two large State procurement processes: The Baltimore Red Line and even more similar, the termination of the State Center project in which the State was supposed to get new office buildings from a private development entity as well.

Just as in the case of the FBI building, no practical alternative was offered at the time of the termination of the deal leaving the situation of obsolete government offices in the mode of a festering wound.

In the case of Baltimore's branch of the Social Security Administration, the feds pulled their deal off by simply abandoning their old urban complex for a more remote location. The idea there, too, was that a developer would swoop in and build a new government building in return for getting the old facility for redevelopment. That didn't pan out either. The old complex sat vacant for years until it was auctioned off to Caves Valley developers who won't build a new federal facility and who have not yet indicated what they will do with the complex. Some suspect that they wait to relocate the State Office workers there which then would leave the State complex fallow.
Baltimore Federal Building

There are a number of interesting architecture and urban design aspects in all of this:

Today the large monumental concrete structures designed in the late sixties and early seventies are the most hated buildings in America, a fate that the Hoover building shares with many brethren from the same period, such as Boston's City Hall, the Baltimore Federal Building and the State Office complex at State Center. Low esteem is typical for buildings when their design is about 50 years old. Old enough to not reflect current design sensibilities but not quite old enough to be considered a historic rarity. It is often forgotten that many of the today popular historic styles from Classical to Victorian or Modernism were fervently despised when buildings were about 50 years old.
Almost from the start it drew criticism. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) described it as the “swaggering bully of the neighbourhood … Ungainly and ill-mannered.” Its glowering bulk and windowless lower storeys evoke dark and sinister power, recalling the state within the state that Hoover created, now metastasised into the surveillance state of the terrorist age. All this in the heart of the capital of the country that regards itself as a global beacon of openness and democracy.
It wasn’t meant to be that way. The building was designed to be open, with a courtyard where office workers could drop by and eat lunch. You could watch agents taking shooting practice. There was a museum displaying the triumphs of the FBI and its direct forebear the Bureau of Investigation, of which J Edgar became boss in 1924.(The Independent
Boston City Hall
From and urban design perspective it is interesting if not ironic that just in a time of a  urban renaissance the government still aims for the suburbs. The idea that the FBI needs vastly more space than 1964 is also interesting since IT has brought generally smaller work stations to the office world shrinking the demand for space. The idea that all 11,000 FBI employees need to be in one space may have to be re-thought as well.

Finally, from a procurement perspective: The GSA's creative idea of acting more like a private real estate holding by recognizing the value of its assets and leveraging it for new construction in a private public partnership (P3) appears to be frequently failing. Putting the old structures into the deal made it very complicated for private bidders. Additional complexity came from the fact that the government envisioned to run three locations competitively against each other leading to a bidding war between Maryland and Virginia, a bad idea in itself.

Now its all over. Especially Governor Hogan must be rubbing his eyes. Having considered a Maryland location for the new FBI to be almost certain he now has to see this dream vanish by Trump taking a page from Hogan's own playbook.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Baltimore State Center Complex

BBJ article 7/11/17
BBJ article 7/12/17

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