WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI’s announcement that it needs a new home has touched off a virtual real estate beauty contest, with communities around the region jockeying for the opportunity to attract the law enforcement agency — and attendant economic benefits — to their neighborhoods.
The pursuit has turned congressmen from neighboring states into competing pitchmen, spurred newspaper op-eds and even required a public apology from an economic development official who disparaged another community bidding for the headquarters. Public debate on Capitol Hill and in the real estate development community has focused on whether an agency whose identity is linked to the nation’s capital could find a more suitable home in the Washington suburbs.
“You would expect there to be competition among the jurisdictions for a development project as favorable as the FBI,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, who joined counterparts from Virginia in testifying last month before a House subcommittee. “We’re all friends. We’re going to try to sell our jurisdictions as the best sites.”
The contenders include Maryland’s Prince George’s County, already home to federal agencies specializing in intelligence research and cybersecurity. Northern Virginia proponents boast of the area’s high-quality schools and proximity to the CIA headquarters and other existing FBI facilities, including its training academy, in the area. The District of Columbia is also offering a waterfront site near highways, public transit and a major league baseball stadium.
The General Services Administration, which oversees federal office space, has received about three-dozen submissions following its request for ideas to develop a new headquarters of approximately 2.1 million square feet. One idea under consideration is a property swap in which a developer would take over the existing FBI headquarters in exchange for constructing or providing a new building for the agency. That possible arrangement would allow the government to save on costs of a new land acquisition while a developer would get the chance to build the new headquarters and repurpose a downtown city block.
The level of interest isn’t surprising: At stake is a multi-million-dollar economic development project that would bring thousands of jobs, expand the tax base and boost area retail and service industries.
“Think about the daytime population, people coming to the FBI headquarters morning, noon and night,” said Douglas Cooper or the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a nonprofit research group. “Think about the potential for people relocating from one jurisdiction to the other to be closer to work.”
The FBI’s current headquarters, a hulking Brutalist structure that opened in 1974 on prime Pennsylvania Avenue real estate, is known by many Americans for its appearances in news broadcasts and movies. Millions have visited for tours, which are now discontinued. But the FBI says the J. Edgar Hoover Building is obsolete, inefficient and in disrepair. Those findings were confirmed by a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that agreed the building didn’t meet the agency’s long-term security needs.
The bureau wants to move more than 10,000 employees spread among leased annexes throughout the region into a secure consolidated headquarters near the highway and mass transit. It says a new headquarters could save at least $44 million in rent payments annually.
The competition manifested itself at a House subcommittee hearing last month, when congressmen normally accustomed to uniting behind joint regional interests took turns trumpeting the virtues of each one’s state.
Maryland officials are pushing a site near a mass transit station in Prince George’s County, which officials say is already home to about a quarter of the region’s federal workforce and agencies including NASA and the National Security Agency. Virginia officials have touted a GSA warehouse facility in Fairfax County — between the existing headquarters and the FBI training academy and laboratory in Quantico — which they say would allow for easy access to the airports, Capitol Hill and the White House.
The states have selectively cited studies and statistics to bolster their case. Maryland officials say more headquarters employees live in their state than in D.C. or Virginia; representatives from Virginia have made similar assertions.
The debate has also included discussion of the region’s demographic and economic differences. Fairfax County, consistently ranked among the nation’s highest-income counties, says the headquarters would be another boon to an already-thriving region, while Prince George’s County officials see a chance to help the county catch up to its more affluent neighbors.
“These sorts of locations and these sorts of decisions are not based really on who needs it the most for different reasons,” said Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “It’s not that Fairfax County doesn’t need it and that Prince George’s County does. I would be very surprised if the FBI and the federal government make a decision on who needs it most. It should be on the merits.”
The process took a snarky turn when Gerald Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, was described by the Washington Business Journal as jokingly suggesting that an FBI headquarters in Prince George’s County would be conveniently close to where its agents go to pick up criminals.
The county struggles with violent crime and was shamed by a public corruption scandal that brought down former County Executive Jack Johnson — who was recorded by the FBI directing his wife to stow cash bribes in her undergarments — and other county officials. Gordon later apologized for having “mentioned some negative aspects of a neighboring jurisdiction.”
“The county is moving on and the sins of the previous administration should not be exacted upon a county of hardworking, honest people,” said Aubrey Thagard, a top county economic development official, adding, “We’ll debate the merits of our location anytime, anywhere, with anybody,” he added.
D.C. officials have proposed relocating the bureau to a waterfront development near the Anacostia River.
It’s an agency “that needs to be on call,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting representative to Congress.
That point was echoed by one retired FBI agent, who in a letter to The Washington Post made the case for keeping the bureau in Washington by saying, “Even in today’s fast-faced electronic world, the need for face-to-face meetings is critical to getting things right.”
Aside from any sentimental attachment, any decision on where to site the headquarters needs to account for practical concerns like traffic management and affordable housing options, said Cooper, of the Urban Land Institute.
“Wherever they decide to relocate, it’s going to have an impact throughout the region — not just in that one jurisdiction but throughout that region.”