March 1, 2013

Ever since the FBI announced last year that it would abandon its Brutalist-style headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and instead seek a single campus where it could consolidate its 11,000-person workforce, jurisdictions around the Washington region have been scrambling to offer up the ideal location for the law-enforcement agency.

The District — which has had the FBI since it was created in 1908 — was late to the game, however, waiting until last month to show any real interest in keeping it within city limits. After the D.C. Council passed a tepid resolution supporting Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in the inter-jurisdictional squabble over the agency’s geographic future, Gray offered up Poplar Point — a 110-acre site along the Anacostia River in Southeast — as a possible location.

It’s a terrible idea. Poplar Point is one of the few riverfront pieces of property in the District still undeveloped; the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development has even marketed it as “one of the last great urban waterfront redevelopment opportunities on the East Coast.” Plans for the property have come in fits and starts over the years, but handing half of it over to the FBI (which says it needs at least 55 acres for its new headquarters) would represent surrendering to the easiest — but least beneficial — option for the land.

Here’s why. Federal facilities don’t make particularly good neighbors; they don’t so much integrate into the community as impose upon it. A new FBI building would be a highly secure facility, likely blocked off from surrounding neighborhoods by armed guards, bollards and walls. The new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters at the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE hasn’t helped liven up that area, so it’s doubtful that Fortress FBI would do much for Poplar Point. Additionally, Ward 8 already has Bolling Air Force Base and the new Coast Guard headquarters, and it will eventually be the home of the Department of Homeland Security. How many more secure facilities does the government want to put there?

Moreover, the financial benefits of such a facility would be meager at best. The District wouldn’t be able to tax the land the new campus would reside on, much less the incomes of the many federal employees who work there but live in Maryland or Virginia. As for sustaining the local economy, it’s simply naive to imagine that thousands of FBI employees would stream out of a secure campus — which will likely have a cafeteria — for a bite to eat in nearby Anacostia. The area is ripe for revival, but the FBI building is not the means to achieve it.

It’s not even clear that city officials are particularly convinced that keeping the FBI would be a good thing. Though plans for relocating the headquarters have been floating around since at least 2011, the District hasn’t completed (or even started) a cost-benefit analysis on whether the FBI should stay or go. It was only this week that outgoing D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi was asked to undertake one; he said it could be completed in 60 days.

The FBI’s departure from Pennsylvania Avenue is certainly reason for celebration: The city will finally be able to do something with the agency’s headquarters, which has deadened a downtown block for far too long. The development opportunities at the site are immense, and it makes little sense to cut into their overall benefits by saddling Poplar Point — another site rich in potential — with a new FBI campus unlikely to serve as the best use of that land.

Mayor Gray has a wonderful opportunity to sit this one out and wait for something better to come along.

The writer is editor of DCist.com.