GSA plan calls for makeover in Southwest D.C.

Five buildings near the Mall in Southwest Washington — some considered the most block-like and dull properties downtown — could be subject to a massive redevelopment plan under a General Services Administration proposal.

The agency has issued a “Notice of Intent” to private sector developers interested in redeveloping a cluster of five buildings on 22 acres along Independence Avenue immediately south of the Mall. The buildings are the Cotton Annex, the Forrestal Complex, the Orville and Wilbur Wright Buildings and the GSA’s regional office building.

“This is an example of GSA’s ongoing commitment to not only shrinking the federal government’s real estate portfolio, but also to maximizing the efficiency and value of federal workplaces,” said Daniel M. Tangherlini, the GSA’s acting director.

The area, which the GSA is calling Federal Triangle South, is bounded by Independence Avenue to the north, Sixth Street to the east, Maryland Avenue and portions of D Street to the south, and 12th Street to the west.

Workers for four agencies, the Energy Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the GSA, occupy the buildings. Each agency is looking to consolidate space after President Obama’s 2010 memorandum asking the government to reduce its real estate footprint.

The GSA said the purpose of the proposal, released Friday, was to “leverage the value of its real property assets to provide more efficient facilities for federal customers and potentially create the catalyst for a revitalization of this area of Southwest Washington.” The agency posted information for interested private sector development partners on FedBizOpps.gov Friday afternoon.

In addition to reform efforts after a convention scandal that brought down the GSA’s top leaders, its real estate unit, the Public Buildings Service, has been under scrutiny from members of Congress eager to see the government save money on vacant or under-utilized real estate.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) have repeatedly pressed the agency to sell, lease or use vacant properties, including the Old Post Office pavilion — the GSA selected the Trump Organization to turn it into a hotel — and the Cotton Annex.

“Today, GSA acknowledged 22 acres on the National Mall are sitting vacant or under-utilized and that it is time to put them to better use for the American taxpayer,” Mica said in a statement. “It looks like our hearings and legislation are finally pushing GSA into action.”

Denham said the federal government wasted an estimated $1.7 billion operating vacant or underutilized real estate in fiscal 2009. The next year, Mica and Denham issued a report, “Sitting on Our Assets,” which detailed those losses.

“In the face of a $16 trillion debt, it’s time GSA gets serious about eliminating waste and increasing efficiency in our government,” Denham said.

Redevelopment of the area could provide a big boost to the District’s efforts to revitalize neighborhoods in Southwest. Although they house thousands of workers, the buildings are considered impediments to revitalization because they create large blocks with little street activity or retail and sometimes interrupt the street grid and hamper pedestrian connections.

Neighborhoods in Southwest offer little to attract visitors south of the Mall, despite having a waterfront along the Washington Channel and four Metro stations. The National Capital Planning Commission has proposed turning the larger area into an “ecodistrict” over the next 20 to 25 years.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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