The FBI Is Going to the Suburbs. That’s Actually Great for DC.

The bureau going to Prince George’s or Fairfax means the District gets to redevelop a prime spot on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Photograph by Flickr user Sammy Six.
Photograph by Flickr user Sammy Six.

It’s official: The District will no longer be home to Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Instead, the bureau’s next headquarters will be suburban, according to a short list of potential sites released Tuesday by the General Services Administration that includes plots in Greenbelt, Landover, and Springfield.

Since the FBI announced plans in 2012 to leave the hulking, brutalist Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, local jurisdictions have scrambled to win the agency’s favor. The FBI is desperate to consolidate more than 11,000 regional employees­­­—currently spread across 20 sites—on a single campus, and the Hoover Building, home to about 5,800 of those workers, is showing its age after 39 years as an eyesore squatting on Washington’s most famous street.

While today’s shortlist cements it, the FBI’s departure to the suburbs was telegraphed by its requirements for a new headquarters: a plot of at least 50 acres big enough to hold a 2.1 million-square-foot building, parking, and other ancillary facilities that’s also within two and a half miles of the Capital Beltway and two miles of a Metro station.

The District’s best offer when the GSA started taking proposals in March 2013 was 40 acres on Poplar Point, an empty swath of Southeast that has frequently been touted as one of the city’s last remaining opportunities for high-value waterfront development. Republic Properties, a large private development firm, floated a tract a few blocks behind Union Station that would have displaced another federal building.

Besides wide-open spaces, the FBI also wants its new headquarters to be a fortress behind a wide security perimeter and without “close proximity to community facilities,” as the federal government’s request for expressions of interest read.

Poplar Point proved too close to densely populated Anacostia, while the site behind Union Station would be neighbored on every side. The FBI’s desire for heavily armed isolation was one of the factors that led Victor Hoskins, DC’s former deputy mayor for planning and economic development, to tell the GSA last November that the District was effectively rendered ineligible to keep the bureau within its borders.

The sites announced today, by contrast, fit the FBI’s wish-list to a T. Greenbelt’s 82-acre plot is mostly occupied right now by parking for the nearby Metro station. The Landover Mall was demolished in 2006, leaving 88 acres of open space; and the Springfield site would replace a GSA warehouse and land owned by Boston Properties.

Prince George’s County has been making the hard sell for Greenbelt, offering $112 million in subsidies to the firm that would eventually develop the site for the FBI, according to the Washington Post. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, Representatives Steny Hoyer and Donna Edwards, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker already have a celebratory press conference scheduled for this afternoon.

But DC, home to the FBI for 106 years, shouldn’t feel like a big loser. While the District stands to forfeit $9.2 million in tax revenue in the short term, it will gain much more than that back when the Hoover Building, which takes up 6.7 acres and an entire city block, is knocked down and redeveloped, especially if its replacement is a taxable property. A report issued last year by Natwar Gandhi, then DC’s chief financial officer, suggested a privately owned, mixed-use development could generate $28 million in new annual revenue, along with several hundred new taxpaying residents. As a federal building, the Hoover Building’s only economic contribution to the District is the sales taxes FBI employees pay when they go off-campus.

“We are happy to see the solicitation process is moving along and look forward to the opportunity to redevelop the site along Pennsylvania Avenue,” reads a statement today from Jeff Miller, the current deputy mayor for economic development.

Fiscal projections aside, the FBI leaving suits city and federal planners’ desired future for Pennsylvania Avenue. With the Old Post Office turned over to the Trumps to transform into a super-luxury hotel, the roadway that’s purportedly “America’s Main Street” is about to get a jolt of commercial activity it sorely lacks. When the GSA floats 935 Pennsylvania Avenue on the real-estate market, as it has said it intends, developers will undoubtedly jump all over each other to claim the sexy address while local officials await a potential windfall that will fill city coffers a lot more than law-enforcement sentimentality will.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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