July 14, 2013

IT MAY be another decade or more before the FBI pulls up stakes from its obsolete, decaying monstrosity of a headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and decamps for a destination still undecided — probably a suburban campus to compete with the CIA’s. The tear-down of the Hoover Building, that hulking fortress of Brutalist-style architecture, will provide the District with a measure of aesthetic relief as well as, it turns out, a modest financial windfall. While the city would lose some 4,800 jobs (on a current base of more than 730,000) if the FBI were to depart, it would also reap $28 million annually in tax revenue by redeveloping the site with a mixture of private-sector office, residential and retail space.

That’s the conclusion of a consultant’s study commissioned by the District’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi. It should provide some comfort to D.C. Council members such as Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), who have been loath to let the FBI leave the city.

Along with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), they have advanced a proposal to try to keep the FBI in the District: for instance, by offering a site in Poplar Point, along the Anacostia River in Southeast, on land the federal government has long planned to transfer to the city’s control. Poplar Point is plausible by dint of its proximity to Metro’s Green Line and the security afforded by the river. But it has its drawbacks — not least, that the District would forfeit substantial land there that could be privately developed and subject to property taxes, which the FBI is not.

From a regional perspective, it makes sense for the FBI to go to the suburbs to build a headquarters that could house some 11,000 employees. Half of them — those who don’t work at the Hoover Building — are now spread among 21 buildings scattered throughout the District and Virginia. Consolidating them in a modern facility is important for an agency that has grown fast since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Given the land requirements for a new headquarters — at least 40 acres — suburban sites with access to Metro are the logical place to look.

The federal government has already started doing so. A number of Northern Virginia localities are in the hunt, as is Prince George’s County, in Maryland. Prince George’s, which has land to spare near Metro stations, makes a strong case both on the grounds of equity (it doesn’t have a fair share of the region’s federal facilities) and of development (having more commuters drive east to work would balance out suburban traffic flows). Fairfax also seems determined to make a competitive bid.

The District needn’t regard the FBI’s departure as a loss. The Hoover Building’s location, on “America’s Main Street,” abuts what has become one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, the Penn Quarter. Repurposing that prime site presents city planners with an exciting opportunity for creative redevelopment.