PITY THE 17,300 workers and contractors assigned to FBI headquarters. Divided between the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where about half of them work, and 21 annexes in leased office buildings scattered over the Washington area, they are a beleaguered lot, judging from a report by the Government Accountability Office. Security is below par. Lacking super-secret conference facilities to discuss highly classified material, they are forced to shuttle from location to location. And, since the explosion of FBI hiring following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, usable office space is at a premium.
Nowhere are the problems more dire than at the Hoover Building, a crumbling, obsolete, concrete pile of Brutalist architecture that opened for business in 1974. Surrounded by a dry moat but, owing to its mid-city setting, still plainly vulnerable to attack, the FBI headquarters is an efficiency expert’s nightmare: horribly configured; stunted by endless interior corridors and, as countless sun-starved FBI office workers have learned, all but impervious to natural light.
Built as a fortress for the ostensible protection of citizens, the building now stands as an imminent threat to pedestrians, who risk being brained by wind-blown chunks of falling concrete.
The GAO report dwells on these failings and many others, outlining costs and benefits to the FBI of refurbishing, rebuilding or relocating its main headquarters. But nowhere in the document does the GAO discuss what many Washingtonians have complained of for years — the building’s sinister, soul-sapping, Soviet-style ugliness.
A structure like the Hoover Building might go unremarked in Moscow, though we have our doubts. But in Washington — which admittedly has its share of architectural clunkers — it stands alone in its combination of prominent location and singular awfulness. Occupying an entire city block and hulking over Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI headquarters is a fright. The sooner it’s torn down, the better.
As it turns out, the GAO seems to agree. The report all but rules out the idea of modernizing the current structure, which would be both the most time-consuming option (14 years, minimum) and the costliest ($1.7 billion). Tearing it down and rebuilding at the same site would be faster and cheaper but would not resolve security concerns or, most critically, the agency’s desperate need to consolidate its still-growing headquarters staff under one roof.
A sensible course is to move the FBI to a campus-style site — think of the CIA, but with better access to mass transit — in the suburbs. Prince George’s County, which has plenty of available space near Metro stations, is one obvious place to look. (As it happens, the FBI eyed a site in the county near the Greenbelt station, the northern terminus of the Green Line, several years ago.) At a stroke, that would solve the FBI’s space problems, rid the District of a damnable eyesore and open the way for the creative redevelopment of a prime site along “America’s Main Street.”