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Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Roads


A lot more people will ride Metro (and not drive) if the FBI makes a smart choice on where to move

Our region has been discussing where the FBI will move for years. A new analysis shows the choice is between a good option (Greenbelt), a mostly-good option (Springfield), and a pretty terrible option (Landover). Let's hope the federal government makes the right call.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

The FBI wants to leave its aging headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, and many in the District would not be sad to see it go. The FBI, like other security-related agencies, wants a high-security fortress with impenetrable walls and what amounts to a moat. That's not ideal in downtown DC, where shops, restaurants, condominiums, and top-tier office space are all in high demand. The block-size dead zone that is the Hoover Building in its current state is bad enough.

The current FBI site does have it's upsides: it's near every single Metro line and countless buses, and since it's in the center of the region it's not very far from anyone. A new site near the Beltway, like the three finalists, all will force longer commutes on at least some people, and push more people to drive, increasing traffic.

How much traffic, however, depends very much on how close the site is to Metro. Build a new headquarters next to a Metro station and near bus lines, and many people will use it; force people to take a shuttle bus, and many fewer will bother.

The more people ride Metro, the better for all of us

Even residents who have no ties to the FBI should care deeply about this important decision. Metro is struggling from low ridership that is squeezing its budget, thanks to maintenance woes, cuts in federal transit benefits, management failures, safety fears, and much more. Our region needs a healthy Metro system to move the hordes of commuters that traverse the region every day.

One of the best ways to strengthen Metro is to use "reverse commute" capacity. Trains are the same size and number going both in and out of downtown, of course; if they're full going in but empty going out, that's a lot of wasted capacity. Large employment centers at outer stations, like at Medical Center, Suitland, and now with the Silver Line, Tysons Corner, drive that reverse traffic. Plus, research has shown that people feel much more willing to use the train if the office is very close to a transit station; a short to medium drive, walk, or bike ride is more palatable from home to the train than on the other end.

No shuttle at Greenbelt; a long shuttle at Landover

According to the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement, an FBI headquarters at Greenbelt could mean up to 47% of workers, or 5,170 people a day, could ride Metro, and they would mostly be using the extra space on reverse peak direction Green Line trains. There would only be 3,600 parking spaces, meaning at most only 3,600 more cars on the Beltway and other roads.

A site in Springfield, Virginia, is almost as good; the station is 0.3 miles from the potential site, and the General Services Administration estimates there would need to be a shuttle, though many people would not need it; this is similar to the distances at Suitland, where there is a bus but many people walk. The EIS predicts 4,070 riders, or 37% of workers, take Metro, and also 3,600 spaces.

Landover, meanwhile, is far, far worse. That site is 1.9 miles from Metro, much too far for walking and forcing everyone to ride a shuttle (which would also take longer, naturally). The EIS estimates only 19% of people ride Metro and a need for 7,300 parking spaces, or about double the added traffic.

These Metro mode share estimates do seem too high—all of them, but definitely Landover. According to public ridership data from WMATA, the Suitland and New Carrollton office parks are getting about 10% of workers riding Metro. It strains credulity that 19% of FBI workers would ride a shuttle to a site 2 miles from the station when 10% don't do the same for a much shorter half mile trip.


Suitland. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Will everyone who can't park take Metro?

Why the discrepancy? The methodology assumes strict limits on parking based on the National Capital Planning Commission's policies. NCPC limits parking to one space per three employees at federal facilities outside DC but within 2,000 feet of a Metro station, and one space per 1.5 employees farther from Metro. That's a very progressive policy that pushes federal agencies to help their employees get to work in ways other than solo driving.

The EIS assumes anyone who can't park will ride Metro, except for a carpool/vanpool rate based on similar federal installations of 10-11%. But will the FBI obey? The National Institutes of Health, right at a Metro station, has been resisting NCPC's policy; the FBI surely has even greater clout if it wanted to build massive amounts of parking. And even if it didn't, it seems doubtful that the lack of parking, while a strong motivating force, would push 19% of employees onto Metro and then a long shuttle ride.

Regardless, it's clear that a choice for Greenbelt or Springfield would help the FBI have a positive impact on Metro's health and minimize the traffic effects, while Landover would do the opposite. Because there are more jobs on the west side of the region than the east, the Beltway and other roads similarly have extra capacity going east, which is one of several reasons why adding jobs to Prince George's County also will strengthen our region.

The federal government may ignore all of the impacts on other commuters and our region's transportation systems when making the decision about a site, but drivers, Metro riders, and just all taxpayers whose dollars help fund the roads and rails should hope the choice is a wise one.

Transit


Landover is not the place for the FBI

The owners of the Prince George's County land where Landover Mall used to sit are lobbying to locate the FBI headquarters there rather than near the Greenbelt or Franconia-Springfield Metro stations. But a site not easily accessible by Metro isn't the best location for the FBI.


Photo by Jonathan on Flickr.

While building the project in Landover might be cheaper to start, the long-term costs to local governments and regional workers, including added traffic and longer commutes, would be far, far higher.

Prince George's Metro stations are the least used in the system (averaging 4,716 daily boardings per station in 2012, compared with 8,478 systemwide). While other counties promoted walkable development around their stations to maximize their investment in Metro, most Prince George's stations remain isolated parking lots with little or nothing to attract activity and train rides.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Development


If the FBI moves to Greenbelt, here's what it will look like

The FBI is considering moving its headquarters from downtown Washington to either Greenbelt, Landover, or Springfield. If it goes to Greenbelt, here's what the development will look like:


Greenbelt development rendering. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

Under this plan, a new mixed-use transit-oriented development would replace the parking lot at the Greenbelt Metro station. The FBI would occupy the five buildings on the bottom of the rendering, with other offices, apartments, retail, and a hotel taking up the rest.

Greenbelt Metro station is located in the upper left side the rendering, immediately behind the building that looks like a "6" digit tipped on its side. To the right of that building, a central plaza would be the area's main public space, and one of Prince George's most urban spots.


Proposed view from the Greenbelt Metro station. Image from Renard Development/Gensler.

The Metro's existing entrance is immediately behind the "6" building. It would be nice if a new Metro entrance would line up directly with the plaza, though it looks more like a short walkway behind the building will connect the station to the plaza.

Since Greenbelt is an end-of-line station, the development replaces all the Metro commuter parking. But instead of surface parking lots, it would go in a new parking garage shown on the far left of the overview rendering, connected to the station with a wide, suburban-style street.

Clustering mixed-use development next to the Metro station and putting the FBI buildings and park-and-rides across the street makes a lot of sense. That layout provides a parking lot for commuters and gives the FBI the space it wants for a buffer without sacrificing the walkability of the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, FBI workers who don't commute via Metro would use the parking garage on the far right, next to the Beltway.

Overall, this looks like a decent plan. There are a lot of less than ideal trade-offs, but given the demands of an end-line station and the FBI, it's not terrible.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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