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National Science Foundation’s HQ is newest prize

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The National Science Foundation may be leaving its Ballston headquarters, with officials and developers in Alexandria, Tysons Corner and elsewhere in Northern Virginia hoping to lure the organization and its thousands of highly educated workers.

The NSF is an independent federal agency that promotes science through research and education programs. It is housed at 4121 and 4201 Wilson Blvd., but the leases there are expiring. The agency is an attractive employer for local municipalities because, in addition to its own employees, it draws more than 60,000 visitors every year, many of them serving on scientific review panels.

City officials in Alexandria, fresh off a more than year-long failed effort to try to coax the Corcoran Gallery of Art out of the District, are pursuing the agency aggressively, and have pinned their hopes on two sites near the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station, east of Telegraph Road.

The first site is a 7 million-square-foot town center project being built by developer Hoffman Co. that would put the NSF next to an AMC movie theater on a site that is currently a parking lot. The other is a mixed-use project by JM Zell Partners on John Carlyle Street called Carlyle Plaza.

“I think we would be extremely thrilled to have NSF at either site,” said Farroll Hamer, Alexandria’s director of planning. The sites “are both at the Metro station, they have a lot amenities, they have great places to eat.”

If Alexandria is able to draw the NSF, it could amount to an employment boom for the area reminiscent of when the Patent and Trademark Office relocated more than 7,000 employees from Crystal City there in 2005. Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille issued a statement through the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership saying the NSF’s relocation would “be a major economic engine for the city of Alexandria, its residents and businesses.”

“In an increasingly competitive knowledge-based economy, NSF would bring 2,400 highly-educated science-focused employees to Alexandria,” Euille said. “We have seen the enormous benefit of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has had on the city since it located here, and believe that NSF would have similar positive benefits.”

GSA reticence?

Commercial real estate analysts say the most likely scenario for the NSF may be to remain on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, particularly given the costs of building offices and the reticence of the General Services Administration, which is conducting the search, to spend money it doesn’t have to.

Alexandria officials have not said how large of a subsidy they would be willing to provide toward an NSF move, but multiple sources familiar with the plans, but who were not authorized to speak about them publicly, said it is in the tens of millions of dollars. The GSA is expected to receive final proposals for the deal in March.

“The city has worked with the two site owners and their submissions reflect the provision of some partial tax relief over the 15-year period,” said Val P. Hawkins, president and chief executive of the economic development partnership, in an e-mail. “Until such time as GSA determines the finalist site, it would be inappropriate for the city to comment further.”

Alexandria is not the NSF’s only suitor. In Fairfax County, the developer of one of the first mixed-use projects in Tysons Corner has proposed building a headquarters for NSF at the corner of Leesburg Pike and Spring Hill Road, next to the coming Spring Hill Metro station on the Silver Line.

Aaron Georgelas, managing partner of the McLean-based Georgelas Group, confirmed that his project, Spring Hill Station, was a candidate for the NSF, but declined to provide details. On Feb. 12, the Fairfax County Board approved an additional 3.8 million square feet for mixed use for the project, where there is already a 25-story, 404-unit apartment tower under construction.

With federal budget cuts looming and many contractors scaling back, Georgelas said finding employers to lease large blocks of space was more competitive than it would have been six months or a year ago.

“We see signs of life but with the whole sequestration, it just puts a whole big wet blanket on everything,” he said.

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