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Can federal offices change neighborhoods for the better?

Do federal office buildings make their surrounding communities better or worse? Last night, 3 local planning directors discussed how federal buildings can make local areas more lively places to work and live, but how some have had the opposite effect.

Patent and Trademark Office and plaza in Alexandria. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The Washington region is unique in the number of federal jobs concentrated in large agencies. These large offices have the power to bring new life into neighborhoods and generate new urban growth around existing transit options. But security concerns can derail their positive effects on neighborhoods.

The key to success for these projects is adaptability. "There's no formula. Each project is unique," said Faroll Hamer, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, at the panel, sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.

"The first iteration is almost always horrible," said Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director. Tregoning argued that communities need to be constantly vigilant and to push back through review and input.

An example of a federal building with negative impact is the FBI Building in downtown Washington. When asked if they thought it was "the worst building in DC," a significant portion of the audience raised their hands. Foreboding and removed from the street, this building serves as an example of what not to do.

On the other hand, the sheer number of workers a new federal office brings into an area can activate the neighborhood. This activity can spur more growth and create new urban fabric where there previously was none. They can give birth to entirely new neighborhoods, or revive ones long since written off.

Qualities of many federal facilities pose problems

Federal office buildings are inherently single-use. Office workers do little for neighborhoods after business hours. This can be especially damaging when agencies cluster, creating large single-use neighborhoods. By spreading offices throughout the region, federal projects can invigorate many different neighborhoods instead of negatively affecting just a handful.

Federal buildings farther from transit often use shuttle buses. These could also provide a desirable transit option for neighborhood residents, but security rules often bar them from riding. This has been part of the conversation around the Department of Homeland Security's new offices at the former St. Elizabeth's hospital site between Anacostia and Congress Heights.

Individual buildings can do a lot to help or hurt their neighborhood. The parking garage for the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria is lined with townhouses on two sides, but other sides are just screened and set back from the street with landscaping, creating a dead streetscape. Many projects fall into this same pattern, with a mix of successful and unsuccessful components.

The GSA plans street-level retail in its building thanks to an innovative approach to security. Image from NCPC.

Security drives many design decisions and harms communities

The General Services Administration (GSA) is working to reverse damage to the streetscape from its massive headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The building is currently entirely disconnected from the street, but GSA plans to bring retail back to the building's street frontage.

To do this, they had to get creative with a factor that hampers the design of many federal projects, security. Security drives a lot of design decisions for federal projects.

USDOT. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
For example, the US Department of Transportation's building in the District's Navy Yard neighborhood takes up two entire city blocks, but has only one retail space along its entire façade, a Starbucks. It brings many workers to the area, but does little for the street.

In urban conditions, security hurts the streetscape by restricting building access from the street and for­bidding retail from lining the outside of buildings. In more suburban conditions it creates large campuses, cut off from what little grid there is and keeping workers from being able to activate the area around them. These large campuses also restrict the ability for planners to attempt to reconnect neighborhoods.

By adapting, many agencies are tackling these issues. The GSA's headquarters was formerly a Level 5 security building. In its renovation, they created a graduated security system, where not all areas of the buildings require the maximum security. As a result, almost all the security bollards around the building could be removed, a marked improvement to pedestrian conditions.

The lower level of security makes street level retail a possibility, and the GSA is looking into opening the building's cafeteria to the public, allowing the agency to share this amenity with their neighborhood.

Sustainability goes beyond LEED

Federal buildings built today have more environmentally-friendly design features. This demonstrates leadership and forward thinking from GSA and the agencies, but Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning for Montgomery County, was careful to remind the audience that the greenest building is the one that already exists, and urged federal designers not get too caught up in LEED.

A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards. There are many different factors to take into account to judge a building's true impact on the environment.

Many federal buildings, like many private buildings, are building more parking spots than they need to. Federal agencies are often surprised by how many workers will choose to commute in ways besides driving. At the Mark Center in Alexandria, offices for the Department of Defense were expected to produce massive gridlock. Instead, 50% of workers utilize transit to get to the site.

Little touches can do a lot

PTO. Photo by Janellie on Flickr.
With creative designs, federal buildings can often make the most out of restrictions out of their control. The PTO's work in Alexandria requires constant delivery of packages between offices, so the hallways were placed facing the street. This allowed workers to make deliveries by daylight and activate the streetscape. The building could not have retail, but the PTO activated the street in a unique way.

Small-scale gestures have very positive effects on the areas around government offices. The PTO provides Wi-Fi in a small park adjacent to the offices and installed glass columns that light at night. Despite larger urban design failings, small gestures like these can make a big difference in neighborhoods.

Federal projects have their own strengths and weaknesses, but each gains from the collective knowledge of the projects that have come before. Agencies are generally moving towards better designed buildings, closer to transit, that give workers more flexibility. We will surely witness missteps along the way, but the trajectory for these buildings and the positive change they can bring to the areas is promising.

Daniel Rojo is an avid urbanist and designer. He currently manages the National Mall Design Competition for the Trust for the National Mall. After spending four years in Brookland studying architecture at Catholic University, he now splits his time between DC and Brooklyn and spends every second he can convincing anyone who will listen of the power of design and the urban environment.  


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The security requirements for federal buildings, esp. post- 9/11 impose barriers to good design and make the govt less willing to share leased space with private tenants. The shuttle problem also involves security and many shuttles now include a security checkpoint for larger campuses like NIH. Most security requirements are based on bureaucratic fiat rather than

The FBI was destined to not be a good neighbor, but probably could have selected a design for the building that seemed less dark and forbidding. It really casts a pall on all of the adjacent spaces. Still, the size of govt as an employer does dictate that there will be large spaces that have little use outside of daylight hours. Not every concentration of federal employment needs to be neighborhood-y. If there were more housing S of the Mall or better connection to the SW urban renewal area, it's likely that this would still be dead on weekends. the cost of introducing amenities to change this would be extremely high and there's no guarantee of success.

Tregoning has it right inasmuch as the first iteration usually is terrible, but one also needs to pick and choose battles and to creatively address things like security and critical mass.

by Rich on Mar 30, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

The FBI building and several of the "first iteration" buildings weren't originally as horrible of neighbors that they are today.

by selxic on Mar 30, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

Nice article, but it is the Patent and Trademark Office, not Patent and Trade Office.

by Anonymouse on Mar 30, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Fixed, thanks for catching that one. It was right in the image captions but an error stayed in the text.

by David Alpert on Mar 30, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

Too bad most federal employees [deleted for violating the comment policy] do not, per capita, contribute much to their surrounding areas. I worked for the feds for about a decade, in fact, at the Patent and Applicant Ripoff Office in Crystal City (more appropriate name for the PTO that never relents on increasing its fees).

by NE John on Mar 30, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

Too bad most federal employees are tightwads or spinsters

Or maybe they're just paid reasonable government salaries that would support an excellent standard-of-living and permit them to spend robustly at lunch, after work, and on central-city housing in most metropolitan areas, but are trapped by the federal government's foolish policies of excessively hands-on, centralized management into scrimping and saving to subsist in this very high cost-of-living city.

by Arl Fan on Mar 30, 2012 11:39 am • linkreport

At lot of the weaknesses of PTO have been noted, but I did a public space assignment as a masters planning student at VT and noticed that a couple of conscious security decisions did have a positive effect. These were just observation, I didn't interview anybody.

The PTO buildings that face the central/park mall feature appear to have their sole entry/exit points through the "front" door. This creates ped traffic around and through the park space. A lot of employees seem to have to hop from bldg to bldg, for meetings, etc., so this creates a lot of encounters where people say hi, stop for a chat, etc. Seems to be the same for the parking. I think everyone who parks in the garages behind the buildings still has to enter/exit via the front door. Yes the space is dead on nites and weekends, but during the day it is a lively and attractive place.

Also, the park space is kind of neat. Everything in it has a plaque with a patent # and patent holder information. This includes lights, benches, the glass block features, even plants, flowers, trees.

Not perfect, but its a fairly nice place that most people would enjoy working at.

by Bill Cook on Mar 30, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

Most of those career feds were GS-14's! I was there

by NE John on Mar 30, 2012 11:49 am • linkreport

The GSA Headquarters project looks great.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 30, 2012 11:52 am • linkreport

While the USDOT building (or is it buildings? They are split on 3rd by a pedestrian walkway) does not have much retail, I think it does something for the street. It's architecturally broken up so it is not as imposing as it could be. It also features an outdoor transportation exhibit that circles the complex. It also has some seating and nice landscaping. It might have one of the best frontages on M St. SE or SW (which might be damning it with faint praise). If at some point they could figure out how to get some more ground floor retail there it will be a great building. And the GSA seems to be making strides incorporating retail into retrofits so there is some hope.

by Steven Yates on Mar 30, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

The PTO site has a lot going for it, as federal sites are concerned. Aside from chain lunch spots, there are a number of small businesses in the area -- chocolate shop, salon, sushi restaurant, in addition to other staple businesses like a post office, numerous banks, not one but 2 starbucks, italian deli, a live music venue, 7-11 etc. However in order to truly enliven the neighborhood you need nightlife.... bars, lounges etc. It will take a brave entrepreneur to open a nightlife spot in this newly created neighborhood, but the investment could well pay off in the future as more people move here.

by Anonymouse on Mar 30, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

I'd agree a majority of feds are tightwads. Uniforms are even worse.

Does anyone have a list of the federal transit buses? I see some from Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon is Rosslyn, and I know there are more.

I've always running a fed special bus down Constiution to the Orange line to help relieve crowding.

by charlie on Mar 30, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

ATF Headquarters is both beautiful and a terrible neighbor. There has to be a way to build first floor retail under federal offices without sacrificing security.

Look at C St. SW between 5th and 6th St. where FEMA is located. That works, but it's rare and it's why food trucks are hte only way to get people outside and to get decent lunch options for workers.

Contrast that with private corridors like Pennsylvania, I, K, and L streets downtown, where the lunch options are abundant and the daytime activity is buzzing.

by Desk Jockey on Mar 30, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

@Desk Jockey, interestingly the ATF HQ has some street-facing retail. They built some retail-filled "liner" buildings facing the Metro station. They're separated from the main building by a moat.

It's just too bad they didn't replicate this effect all the way around.

by Joey on Mar 30, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

ATF *does* have first-floor retail!

Presumably, they could also retrofit some more retail onto 1st beneath that weird trellis thing without compromising security. The basic design of the building (main building in the middle of the block with a "moat" between the outward-facing retail and main office space) is good, but the architect only went halfway with it for some reason.

by andrew on Mar 30, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

I see DC (Tregoning) and Alexandria (Hamer) were represented, just curious, who was the third and who were they a representative (or former rep) of?

(you want an example of how not to do things, the Census and Smithsonian campuses around the Suitland metro. Though there's bigger issues than just 'planning' with that area)

by Kolohe on Mar 30, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

@Kolohe - I believe the third was Rollin Stanley from Montgomery Co.

by Jacques on Mar 30, 2012 3:31 pm • linkreport

For what its worth, I'm a spinster and a fed, and I also "spend robustly" at lunch (I eat out every day), at dinner (2-3 times a week) and at DC's many great retail locations. So do most of the feds I work with (most of whom live and spend in DC, by the way). Personally, I see very little difference between my colleagues and friends in the private sector in terms of spending habits. Please save your disparaging generalities for elsewhere.

by Spinster on Mar 30, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the Suitland Federal Center. What has it done for Suitland?

What about the FDA in College Park? Or NIH in Bethesda? NOAA in Silver Spring?

When I worked for the Fed Gov't over a decade ago, I noticed that many of my co-workers rode MARC or VRE and always had to catch a train at a particular time or risk not getting home. This inflexibility, I think, prevented their patronizing surrounding businesses after work.

by The Civic Center on Mar 30, 2012 6:35 pm • linkreport

Ooops! Someone--Kolohe--did mention the Suitland Federal Center. I recall that the Navy and NOAA also have offices there.

by The Civic Center on Mar 30, 2012 6:41 pm • linkreport

Everyone should feel free to contribute their thoughts on good (and bad) examples of federal urban design to the NCPC's public involvement site. It takes just a few moments to click on a site and enter a sentence or two with your thoughts:

by Payton on Mar 30, 2012 11:33 pm • linkreport

"A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards."

Take a look at the proposed LEED 2012 changes: It's going to be difficult for a building to reach Platinum without locating in a dense, transit served area. The credit for reduced parking footprint is also strengthened.

by Laurence Aurbach on Mar 31, 2012 9:23 am • linkreport

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