Government offers to swap for a new FBI headquarters

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WASHINGTON -- For nearly 40 years, the FBI has had its headquarters in a massive example of Brutalist architecture on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the federal government hopes to swap the building and its prime location for a sprawling new home in the suburbs, and there seem to be plenty of developers eager to help make that happen.

The General Services Administration, the federal government's landlord, held an "industry day" in January to lay out its wish list for a new FBI headquarters, drawing more than 450 interested developers, architects, brokers and consultants.

"The property on Pennsylvania Avenue is pretty much irreplaceable real estate," said P. Brian Connolly, senior vice president of Akridge, a major Washington real estate development and management firm. "Real estate is all about location. It's just a great location."

The GSA meeting was the largest for any such offering in memory, administration officials said. Those in attendance included many well-known industry names -- among them, the engineering firm Greenhorne & O'Mara; the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Lockheed Martin; Booz Allen Hamilton; Siemens Government Technologies; Jones Lang LaSalle; Tishman Speyer; and Boston Properties.

"Everybody is salivating for this," said Ron Kendall, a real estate consultant representing a major local developer that did not want to be publicly identified.

When the monolithic FBI building was completed on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1974, it was -- if not a bright light -- then at least a glimmer of hope in what was a stagnant downtown in the nation's capital. White flight from the shopping district had followed the 1968 racial riots, and private disinvestment had accelerated.

If the new building was austere and unwelcoming, with no ground-floor windows or retail space, it seemed nonetheless to meet the needs of the agency for space to store files and house its thousands of employees, who, it was hoped, would inject a modicum of consumer spending into a commercial district that had fallen on hard times.

Today, the area around the building, named for longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, is booming with new life -- new restaurants, upscale shops and high-end residential apartments -- in a stylish neighborhood now known as Penn Quarter. The building itself is deemed obsolete as a headquarters for today's Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The GSA hopes to find a developer willing to take over the 2.4 million-square-foot FBI building, and the now highly valued land on which it sits, and build a new, 2.1 million-square-foot headquarters on as much as 55 acres in the Washington area.

The overflow crowd at the January meeting "bodes pretty well for this project," Daniel M. Tangherlini, acting administrator at the GSA, told the group. "We're looking at the interest of the market in doing this kind of business with us. The amount of interest has continued to grow."

The FBI building, Mr. Tangherlini said, served its purpose. "It was developed as a giant file cabinet," he said, "a disk drive before disk drives, to make storage and retrieval of paper easier. The FBI is much less about that now; they're stuck with a building representing the technology of a generation or two ago."

He said it would be too costly to renovate or to demolish and rebuild the FBI building at its current site. "It costs too much to operate and diminishes the quality of downtown," he said. "The neighborhood is completely different now."

But there is more to the project than the FBI's changing needs. A politically damaging scandal over conference expenses last year forced Mr. Tangherlini's predecessor to resign and brought about a "top-to-bottom review" of the agency's operations, Mr. Tangherlini said, leading it to tighten its belt by looking for new and more economical ways to house government agencies.

Thus, the government wants to dispose of unused or underused properties and, in the case of the FBI, take advantage of the property to get a new headquarters that will cost the government less. The GSA is also seeking to sell an unused heating plant in Georgetown and several underused federal buildings in southwest Washington, but meetings on those projects each turned out only 100 interested parties.

Politics could also play a part in the ultimate decision. Members of Maryland's congressional delegation, including both senators and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, have publicly supported a site in Prince George's County, part of which is in Mr. Hoyer's district. A Senate committee resolution said the new headquarters should be within two miles of a Metro station and 2 1/2 miles from the Beltway, but Mr. Tangherlini said the GSA would be flexible in applying those requirements.

Officials in the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia are also in the game. Jim Herbert, economic development officer for Loudoun County, Va., home to Dulles International Airport, said his jurisdiction, in the suburban outer ring, offered a planned extension of the region's commuter Metrorail system and more undeveloped farmland. "You get more for the dollar if you don't have to deal with pre-existing structures," he said. "We've got a lot of developers who are very interested."

Mr. Connolly, of Akridge, noted that more than land would be involved in meeting the agency's requirements. "Anything the FBI does is going to be a highly secured campus, is going to have a very sophisticated communications system, very sophisticated electronic demands and needs," he said. "There will be plenty of redundancy built into the project, because the FBI can never afford to lose power."



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