By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
The Defense Department will have to move as many as 50,000 employees out of Northern Virginia office buildings if it strictly enforces new security regulations, and local lawmakers say Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could announce some of those relocations this week.
Rumsfeld is to release a list of planned military base closings and realignments by Friday. Although Pentagon officials have declined to provide details, Rumsfeld said last week that the department wants to move workers from leased office space to buildings it owns to cut long-term costs.
The department would have to begin moving those jobs anyway because of anti-terrorism regulations it adopted two years ago, which require, among other things, that buildings not on military bases be set back at least 82 feet from traffic to protect against truck bombs.
The new standards, already in effect for new construction, become mandatory in October for new leases and will be phased in for all lease renewals starting in 2009.
The Pentagon rents about 8 million square feet of space in 140 Northern Virginia buildings -- and almost none of them can meet the new requirement, according to analysts and lawmakers.
Although just how the Pentagon will implement the rules is uncertain, local members of Congress say they fear that tens of thousands of defense jobs will leave Arlington County and other densely populated parts of Northern Virginia over the next five to 15 years, moving to military bases or commercial sites outside the Capital Beltway -- or elsewhere in the country -- where land is cheaper.
The District and Maryland have fewer Defense Department leases but could also be affected.
"I think the [base realignment] process is about to drop an economic bombshell on Northern Virginia. It's probably the greatest threat to our economy since the real estate recession of the late 1980s," Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who represents Arlington, home to about 60 percent of the leased Defense space in the region, said in an interview.
"I don't want to cause people to panic, but I suspect very strongly that . . . its target is going to be DOD-leased space, particularly leased space within proximity of the Pentagon," Moran said.
In addition to the economic impact on such jurisdictions as Arlington, land-use experts say the security regulations could increase suburban sprawl and frustrate "smart growth" efforts in urban areas.
Moran has asked Rumsfeld to ease the setback rule, and a spokesman for John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he, too, supports a more flexible standard as long as it does not sacrifice safety.
Besides the minimum setback requirement, the new Pentagon rules call for buildings to be more collapse-resistant; to eliminate uncontrolled below-ground or rooftop parking; and to have protective window glazing, mailroom ventilation and emergency shutoff switches for air distribution.
"The Department of Defense does not have an interest in going back into Fort Apache. But we do have an interest in protecting our people," said Ralph E. Newton, who heads the branch of the Pentagon that manages its leased space in the capital region.
Several real estate analysts cautioned that lack of funding might limit how quickly the Pentagon can move to more secure buildings and that it is likely to apply the new standards to its most sensitive facilities first.
They also said the relocations might not seriously hurt the region as a whole, as inner jurisdictions' losses would be offset by outer suburbs' gains.
For instance, the Fort Belvoir Engineering Proving Ground, a former military airfield in southeastern Fairfax County, has been touted by developers as a site that could accommodate up to 20 million square feet of office space, although it has environmental and traffic problems.
Newton said it is unlikely that all 50,000 defense workers in leased space would be moved outside the region.
"I think until we test the standards and see what the market will bear, it is impossible for us determine what the impact will be," he said.
But Washington area planners and real estate experts say the new Defense Department rules are part of a wider trend toward fortification of government offices that has forced them to alter their thinking.
Intense demand for homeland security and military-related office space has caused rents to soar near the National Security Agency at Fort Meade and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland, each at least 20 miles from Washington, for example.
Robert M. Pinkard, chief executive of Cassidy & Pinkard, the area's largest locally owned commercial real estate firm, said he has never before seen a time when the private lease market is so driven by the federal government's decisions on location.
Closer to the capital, Arlington planners are discussing whether to seal off street traffic around individual building, or perhaps even several blocks of Crystal City or Ballston, to try to keep their defense jobs, although that could run counter to the county's history of "urban village" planning.
In Southeast Washington, District leaders are revising plans to redevelop 300 acres around St. Elizabeths Hospital into a residential and commercial center, now that the U.S. government wants to use its portion of the property for a secure compound for federal agencies.
In Prince George's County, planners are worried that their dream of redeveloping a "town center" across from the 226-acre Suitland Federal Center will be limited because federal agencies have retreated behind fences and buffer zones, said Teri Bond, project manager with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
"We have had a sea change . . . in the way security is perceived for federal employees and people within federal buildings, and I don't believe it will ever go back to the way it was before," said Joseph D. Delogu, principal and partner with Spalding & Slye Colliers, a real estate firm that helped the Transportation Security Administration choose its new headquarters.
At the same time, some anti-terrorism specialists have criticized the federal government for not adopting uniform standards. For non-defense agencies, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration finalized less restrictive rules in February. They require setbacks of 20 to 100 feet for new buildings only, and they allow exceptions if an agency can reach an overall level of security "performance."
Some agencies, such as the Justice and State departments, have stronger requirements.
"We don't want to say if you don't have 19 1/2 feet of setback you're out of consideration," said Wade D. Belcher, who chaired the working group that produced the standards and is with the Office of the Chief Architect at GSA.
"We will not be bullied by domestic or international persons who want to do harm or disrupt the government. And if we abandon an area, it can be perceived that the potential adversaries have won."
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.