By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The FBI is joining the exodus to the outer suburbs, moving its Northern Virginia-based agents from a cramped Tysons Corner complex adjacent to the Capital Beltway to 15 acres on a former horse farm in rural Prince William County.
It's the first major government office to relocate to Prince William. Construction began there this month on a $32 million building, nicknamed "the Taj Mahal" by some FBI officials, that will feature highly finished terrazzo floors at the entrance, a soaring atrium and a giant fingerprint etched into the elevator doors.
The departure from Fairfax County has brought the same headaches faced by companies that move in search of open space and cheaper land: more time on the road and employee anxiety. FBI agents still do most of their work inside the Beltway, say some law enforcement officials who fear investigations will be slowed because many of the 150 Northern Virginia-based agents will be stuck in endless traffic on Interstate 66.
But the man who spearheaded the move, Joseph Persichini Jr., calls it "visionary." He believes it puts the bureau on the cutting edge of the rapid growth that is spreading to Northern Virginia's outer suburbs. He also says the bureau needs a more secure location in the post-Sept. 11 era.
"If you look at the data for where is the growth of the economic corridor today, and where is it going to be three to five years from now, it's Prince William," said Persichini, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office, which handles cases from Northern Virginia and the District. "As growth goes, cases increase."
The 30-year agent turned from crime fighter to demographer in planning the move. He spoke to economists and attended George Mason University seminars, where he analyzed future growth patterns in the region. "This is a business decision, and travel is a cost of doing business," Persichini said, adding that the Prince William land cost $2.6 million compared with $12 million to $15 million for similar plots in Fairfax.
The debate provides a law enforcement twist on the changes sweeping Northern Virginia and the anxiety that can result as more people move farther from the Beltway, demographers said.
"This happens every time there is a corporate relocation. It's always wrenching," said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, which researches urban and metropolitan change.
"The FBI is just chasing the development across the region," he said. When the bureau first moved its Virginia branch of the Washington Field Office to Tysons, he said, "Tysons was the Prince William County of 1987. It was viewed as, 'Oh my God, how can anyone work out there?' "
The FBI has been moving farther out into Northern Virginia for years. The agency's presence had long been the Alexandria Field Office in Old Town. After that closed, the FBI in 1987 opened in Tysons what is still called the Northern Virginia Resident Agency.
The Tysons office has nearly 300 employees, including support personnel and agents tracking everything from health-care fraud and white-collar crime to drugs and violent gangs. Although counterterrorism and counterintelligence agents are in the District, those in Tysons are investigating high-profile matters such as the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001 and corruption allegations against Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.). The bureau plans to bring new counterterrorism squads to the new Prince William office and to open a language translation unit there, to help with the chronic problem of attracting Arabic speakers.
Even with the move, the FBI's presence inside the Beltway will still include the national headquarters in the District and hundreds of District-based agents in a separate location at the Washington Field Office.
Employees in Tysons currently work out of several floors covering about 100,000 square feet of a dark-colored office building on Leesburg Pike. Cars are free to drive about 50 feet from the entrance to the building, which also houses a bank and a developer.
The lack of security was a prime motivation for the move -- federal rules require new FBI buildings to be set back at least 100 feet from traffic -- along with the increasingly crowded conditions in Tysons.
FBI officials searched elsewhere in Fairfax and in Loudoun County but each site was not secure enough or cost too much, Persichini said.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he regretted losing the FBI but is not worried that the move could presage an exodus to the outer suburbs. Connolly added that the "downside" of the FBI's move is that "you're obviously going to create some problems in terms of commuting time for your employees."
In Prince William, officials were only too happy to return the bureau's interest. "It's a significant project in terms of the county's identity," said Jason Grant, spokesman for the county's Department of Economic Development. Many FBI agents live in Prince William, officials said, and the FBI Academy is already there, in Quantico.
Under the deal, announced last year, the Prince William Board of Supervisors agreed to an option to sell the land in the Innovation@Prince William office park. The federal General Services Administration then chose the Fairfax-based Peterson Cos. as the developer and owner and transferred the option to the company. Peterson will lease the 199,110-square-foot building to the FBI.
The concrete and glass building, scheduled to open in December 2007, will be a limestone color and will feature a fitness center and a heavily landscaped outdoor area with jogging paths and a picnic area next to a meadow and a small stream. Special security features will make it "basically blast-resistant," said Bill Smith, a senior vice president at Peterson.
He said the fingerprint theme on the elevators emerged from the company's proposal, which was delivered in an FBI-style metal evidence box with a fingerprint on the cover. "It's sort of symbolic of the bureau and its history," Smith said.
The new building will be about 40 miles from the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, where agents frequently travel to meet with prosecutors, bring witnesses to grand jury sessions or testify before the grand jury or in court. Some Northern Virginia-based agents also frequently travel to the District and occasionally to Maryland, law enforcement officials said. To get back to Prince William, agents will have to navigate a 20-mile stretch of I-66 west from the Beltway, sometimes during rush hour, plus four miles on a mostly rural section of the Prince William Parkway near Manassas.
The FBI's Tysons office, by contrast, is about 17 miles from the U.S. attorney's office.
"It makes absolutely no sense," said one FBI agent, who is not an official spokesperson and requested anonymity. "We've all just been scratching our heads and thinking, 'How did they come up with this?' "
Other agents and law enforcement officials said the concerns about traffic will change the tenor of investigations, leading to delays or even cancellations of key meetings between agents and witnesses or agents and prosecutors. "It's just a heck of a lot easier to work a case if the person is near you," said one law enforcement official who works with FBI agents and is not authorized to talk about the move.
Long drives can be problematic for agents because the bureau has been imposing limits for the past year on what they can spend on gasoline.
Persichini said the crunch came because the bureau's budget, set two years in advance, did not anticipate increases in the price of gas. He said the new building will increase efficiency because its size will allow the FBI to consolidate operations, shuttering warehouses that contain closed case files.
"Change is difficult," Persichini said. "I understand that. We all get very comfortable. But we have to be flexible."
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.