A conversation with Robert A. Peck

Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; A13

With 362 million square feet of owned and leased office space -- enough to fill more than 5,600 football fields -- Robert A. Peck, the commissioner of public buildings for the General Services Administration, runs one of the biggest real estate portfolios in the country.

He oversees the construction and operations of the federal government's courthouses, border stations and office buildings for dozens of agencies, including the FBI, the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency. After serving five years in the job, Peck left for the private sector, where he worked as a commercial real estate broker. In August 2009, he came back to his spot at the GSA. Here are snippets from a recent 30-minute interview with Peck in his headquarters office at 18th and F streets NW.

Q How do you describe your job?

We're the government's landlord. I always remind people: That's really great until you remember that most everybody hates their landlord.

What are some of the big deals you're working on?

Health and Human Services is going to need more space in Baltimore and in the D.C. area, as they'll be hiring more people to carry out the health-care law over the next year or two. Baltimore is where they carry out Medicare and Medicaid, and those programs will expand in some form.

What's your favorite type of building to deal with? Border stations. They combine all the attributes of a highway toll booth and a jail, and they have the added mission of being a "welcome to the USA" signpost. That's what we tell architects they have to do in building them. People have to drive through, get searched. Some get detained, and for most everybody else, you want to put a friendly face on it.

You've been in this job, for the second time around, for six months. What are your priorities?

We're trying to re-engineer our leasing process.

What does that mean?

There are dozens of steps we take in doing a lease the "government way." . . . We have a lot of steps. We have a lot of people looking over our shoulder at whether we're doing this right and spending taxpayers' dollars well. All of that is very appropriate, but you know what happens in the government. Over the years, every time someone sees an opportunity for something to go wrong, they add another step or another piece of oversight.

What's the problem with that?

After a while, the lease you might be able to negotiate in nine months takes 18 months. . . . There is a cost to that. A GSA leasing specialist can handle less of a workload and landlords say, 'Boy you are difficult to negotiate with. It takes me so much longer to negotiate a lease with you guys.' We want to try to streamline the process to do a deal with us.

Are you trying any other new things?

We're trying to be a 'green' proving ground.

What does that mean?

Well, in Denver, we have about 4 million square feet of space there. Electricity is real cheap, but the reason it is cheap is that they're burning coal. It is polluting, so we're trying out 20,000 to 30,000 solar cells to go on our roofs and in solar fields there to power the buildings. . . . We'd like to try new ideas of using green energy. If someone's got an idea, we've got enough buildings to try it out, vet it and see how they work or not.

What keeps you up at night?

Security. We can talk about running buildings efficiently, but our first job is making sure people are safe and secure when they come to work. We have to balance between securing a building and making it accessible and inviting to the public. It's concerning when you get a text message that someone has flown a plane into a building in Austin, Texas, and hit the IRS [an employee was killed and several others injured in such an incident in February]. That was one of our leased buildings.

Is there any way to prevent that kind of thing?

Not really. It is impractical to build buildings that can withstand a blow from an airplane.

Has doing deals with the federal government become more attractive these days, as the private sector market has slowed down its rate of leasing office space?

Yes. There is no better tenant than the federal government. We're not going anywhere. We're not going under, and we pay our bills on time. That's pretty important for landlords these days. . . . There are people I know who were anti-doing deals with the federal government who have had a change of heart.


Money talks. And at the moment, we have it, and unfortunately a lot of other people don't.

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