Greater Greater Washington

Posts about FBI Building


Westphalia owners lobbying hard for FBI

Prince George's County and Maryland have decided to throw their weight behind putting the FBI at the Greenbelt Metro station, but developer Walton North America hasn't given up lobbying for it to go at the 479-acre, non-transit-oriented Westphalia development out past Joint Base Andrews.

Image from the "Welcome Home FBI" website.

We received an email from the PR firm Edelman about a new website they are launching on behalf of Walton. The site, called "A Welcome Home for the FBI," argues that "Westphalia Town Center would provide a secure, state-of-the-art campus for the FBI within a vibrant community where FBI employees and their families can live, work and play," and that "Westphalia Town Center would be a win-win-win for FBI employees and their families, as well as Prince George's County residents and businesses."

There's even a map, captioned, "Westphalia Town Center provides many convenient transportation options." Does it, now?

Image from the "Welcome Home FBI" website, modified by the author.

While Westphalia is located next to the Capital Beltway and Pennsylvania Avenue and adjacent to Joint Base Andrews, it's not on or near a Metro line, MARC train, or the planned Purple Line. I've placed a star around potential spots for the FBI that are on Metro: Greenbelt, Franconia-Springfield (Fairfax's proposal), and two suggestions from Greater Greater Washington contributors, Morgan Boulevard and Suitland.

(This map actually shows Metro in entirely the wrong place. Notice how the Orange and Blue Lines appear under the Potomac around where Smithsonian station would be. The Red Line crosses into Maryland east of DC's the northern point, not west. This map doesn't show the Blue Line out to the Beltway at all, and the southern Green Line actually runs along Suitland Parkway.

It clearly looks as though this map originally had no Metro at all, and the designers hastily slapped the Metro lines on without sizing and positioning them right. Perhaps this illustrates how much Westphalia really thinks about transit.)

Walton is so eager for the FBI that they recently offered to fund a bus line to Branch Avenue Metro. Unfortunately, a bus is unlikely to draw nearly the percentage of FBI workers that a Metro site would. The county has explored ways to extend the Green Line to Westphalia, but no serious planning has been done for it and nobody, including Walton, has any idea of how to pay for it.

As a greenfield, largely undeveloped site, Westphalia will require lots of new, expensive infrastructure whose long-term costs will get pushed onto the public. That spending will ultimately weaken pressure to build in existing communities where there's already underused transportation infrastructure, at the Metro stations. Those communities, however, don't have PR firms to push the government to put jobs there.

Putting the FBI in Prince George's County is the right move. The east side of the region has not gotten its share of federal or private jobs, forcing people to travel long distances from east to west. The FBI wants a large security fortress, which is incompatible with potential locations in central DC.

An site that is short walk from one of Prince George's 15 Metro stations, however, could house a large high-security complex and also catalyze walkable transit-oriented development closer to the station. This would maximize the value we get from our existing regional transportation network. With so many available Metro-accessible sites in Prince George's, Westphalia is not a good spot for the FBI.


FBI headquarters could stay downtown, but at a cost

As the FBI searches for a new headquarters location, most of the options have focused on the suburbs or Poplar Point, but Washingtonian reports on another proposal: Keep it downtown, at H Street and North Capitol Street, NW. But that location has serious downsides.

Rendering of potential H Street FBI. Image from Arthur Cotton Moore via Washingtonian.

The proposal would repurpose the existing Government Printing Office buildings on North Capitol Street and add a new extension to the west. The new building would be over 2 million square feet, and would cover multiple blocks from New Jersey Avenue to North Capitol.

Ideally an employer as large as the FBI should have its offices downtown, but the FBI isn't just any employer. Its building is likely to be a security fortress, which means it won't be very good for pedestrians, or have ground floor retail. H Street is an important pedestrian and retail spine. Giving up a long stretch of it to the FBI would be just as bad there as it is on E Street, where the FBI is a sidewalk dead zone.

Actually, a dead zone on H Street might be even worse. Walmart is building an urban format store directly across the street from this site. And love Walmart or hate it, it's going to be one of downtown's biggest retail draws. That means this exact block of H Street is about to become one of the busiest retail main streets in the city. It should have retail on both sides.

One advantage of this FBI proposal is that the federal government already owns the land. That does mean it's already less likely to get retail on it, but putting the FBI building on it would cement that, literally.

There are other questions. DDOT's proposed crosstown streetcar would run along H Street. The FBI has never weighed in on streetcars, but would they throw up security-related roadblocks? It's unknown.

According to Washingtonian, the FBI would close G Street entirely to traffic, as well as obliterating a block of 1st Street. That further cripples the L'Enfant grid at a time when other projects are trying to restore the grid nearby. And would the FBI forbid pedestrians and cyclists on G Street as well as motor vehicles?

Finally, the existing GPO buildings are among Washington's most prominent historic red brick buildings, and were designed by a prominent architect at the time. The FBI concept renderings show a courtyard in the middle of the GPO building, but aerials show no such courtyard currently exists. That suggests the buildings will have to be completely gutted to fit the FBI. Is that a worthy tradeoff?

Any proposal that keeps the FBI downtown merits serious consideration, but given the FBI's security requirements, and given the potential for this location to be redeveloped with something even better, it may be preferable to let the FBI go. Putting the FBI on this block might be better than having it remain a parking lot, but almost any other building would be more ideal.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Put the FBI in Suitland, not Greenbelt (and not Poplar Point)

Talk of the FBI leaving its Pennsylvania Avenue heaquarters reached a fever pitch in the last week, with WMATA taking steps to enable its development partner at the Greenbelt Metro station to bid on the FBI. But a different site might be more fiscally prudent and better contribute to transit-oriented development: the Suitland Federal Center.

Suitland Federal Center. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

I have only seen Suitland, in southern Prince George's County, mentioned once in the press covering this story (December 18, 2011, in the Baltimore Sun), but I believe it's the best choice in Prince George's and the region.

The Suitland Federal Center is a 226-acre site housing the offices of the US Census Bureau, the National Archives' Washington Records Center, the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility, the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office, and a few other small buildings. There is a contiguous area of just under 55 acres that includes a couple vacant buildings, open land, and underutilized parking lots.

Suitland already has much of what the FBI needs

This space could easily become the new location for the FBI. The entire area is already access controlled via gates and a fenced perimeter. There is room for the standoff distance that the GSA requires for Level 5 facilities (those that are considered critical to national security). The building would need to be long, narrow, and tall in order to fit all the office space necessary to house upwards of 10,000 employees, but luckily, there is already precedent for such a building in Suitlandthe Census Bureau's building.

The 55-acre area that could house the FBI.

Most importantly, the federal government already owns the land. Unlike at Greenbelt, a headquarters building in Suitland will not preclude any more land from future taxable uses. The latest proposals for the Greenbelt property would have GSA pay taxes to Prince George's County and Greenbelt for the next 20 years, but the land would come off the tax rolls permanently after that point.

Both locations have regional transportation benefits

The city of Greenbelt and Prince George's County have good reasons to want the FBI at the Greenbelt station. More jobs at this location would mean economic development opportunities for Greenbelt and other nearby cities in northern Prince George's County, and the oft-cited "reverse-commuting" effect from employees living to the west may help slightly balance traffic on the Capital Beltway, which is heaviest out of Prince George's County during the morning rush and heaviest into the county during evening rush hour.

The commuting situation would be similar at the Suitland location. The years-long Wilson Bridge project added driving capacity along the southern part of the Beltway, and can arguably handle commuter traffic more efficiently than the northern part of the beltway through Montgomery County and over the American Legion Bridge.

Many FBI workers already drive to and from Virginia. The Bureau has a major facility including its training academy at Quantico. Suitland would offer a shorter trip for people traveling between the two, via the Wilson Bridge by car or bus, or possibly a future rail transit connection.

News reports have also cited a need for a location within 2½ miles of the Beltway. Greenbelt is clearly superior in proximity, as it is directly adjacent to the beltway, but Suitland falls within 2½ miles of the highway. At either location, a new exit for traffic would need to be built. The exit for the Greenbelt station only serves traffic coming from or going to the west, and an exit on the beltway for the Suitland Parkway would probably be necessary to handle higher traffic coming to and from the Suitland Federal Center.

Both locations could take advantage of a Green Line station adjacent to the site, and both are at or near the end of the line, encouraging reverse commuting for those using the transit system from DC and the core of the metro area.

Greenbelt could be so much more, while Suitland never can

The placement of the Suitland metro station, unfortunately, precludes the opportunity for strong transit-oriented development at this location. The station is hemmed in by a freeway to the west and the fenced-off-and-not-open-to-the-public Federal Center to the north and east. The "downtown" crossroads of Suitland (Suitland and Silver Hill Roads) would have been a better location to encourage TOD, but moving the station is extremely unlikely.

Greenbelt, on the other hand, has the opportunity for mixed-use at its station. The area to the south of the station had a development plan that derailed when the real-estate market crashed in the last decade. Eventually, demand for housing, shopping, and jobs at locations inside the beltway will only make Greenbelt an even more attractive place to invest in growth.

I realize that it's difficult to ask a city to wait, when they can benefit from development today. In the long run, though, the city of Greenbelt has the opportunity to create a plan that will bring jobs, residents, retail, and a tax base to this site. That seems like too good of an opportunity to throw away for the short-term promise of 20 years worth of property taxes from the federal government.

Not Poplar Point, either

Update: Just before this post went live, Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post reported that Mayor Gray will propose keeping the FBI's headquarters in DC by moving it to Poplar Point in Ward 8.

While that site would have some transportation advantages similar to Greenbelt or Suitland, ultimately, it would be a bad choice for the city. It would preclude the possibility of developing that land in a form that could produce property taxes for DC, and it would cause an even larger stretch of our very limited waterfront property to be forever off-limits to the residents of the city.

It's an interesting proposal, but ultimately its shortcomings should lead to the idea being scuttled quickly.


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.

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