The latest proposal to allow the D.C. Council to reclaim the John A. Wilson Building calls for federal office workers and city government employees to trade places.
A memo released yesterday by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) suggested that the General Services Administration take One Judiciary Square, where the city's executive and legislative offices are now located, in exchange for the 165,000 square feet of space it is planning to lease at the Wilson Building.
The District government would return to its historical city hall as the sole occupant of the 91-year-old Beaux Arts structure at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a $52 million renovation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to move into the refurbished Wilson Building in January, and federal and local officials acknowledged yesterday that they would have to quickly decide whether such a swap is doable.
"It's an intriguing idea," D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said. She has scheduled a meeting for today to brief council members on Norton's proposal.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) "sees this as an idea worthy of consideration," said his spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong. In fact, she added, Williams was already studying the idea with his director of planning.
Robert Peck, commissioner of public buildings for the General Services Administration, which has spent millions of dollars preparing the Wilson Building space for the EPA, said his agency would study Norton's proposal.
"Her memo is useful in prodding all of us to take a look at some potential alternatives," Peck said. "We need to look at the numbers and options and see if it works legally and economically."
Norton said that although she drafted the proposal after an Oct. 29 meeting she hosted between city and federal officials, none of the officials had signed off on the terms of her plan.
"I felt my charge was to try to find an immediate solution that was low-cost or no-cost," Norton said. "Each party ought to have time to look and see whether it meets their concerns. . . . If [the proposal] won't work, we go back to the drawing board."
The Wilson Building, named for the late council chairman, has been closed for renovations for the past two years. In 1996, the council entered into a deal with a local developer to rehabilitate the crumbling building and lease two-thirds of it to the federal government. The GSA's $6.4 million annual leasing fees would repay the cost of the renovations.
But now that the District is no longer broke, council members say they want the Wilson Building to be occupied by the local government only. Just last month, council members wrote a letter to President Clinton asking him to halt plans to move the EPA into the building. The members even offered to lease back its space from the GSA.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has been vocal and active in trying to get the federal offices out of the Wilson Building, praised Norton's effort.
"If that's acceptable to the EPA, to move [to One Judiciary Square], I think that's a great solution," Evans said. "Any solution that gets the District government in 100 percent occupancy of the Wilson Building immediately is a good solution."
One Judiciary Square is larger than the Wilson Building, which would be a benefit to the EPA, which is seeking to consolidate its employees now scattered in offices in Southwest Washington and Crystal City.
Anthony E. Costa, assistant regional administrator for the GSA, said Norton's proposal, though it sounds simple enough, "is fairly complicated. . . . We're looking at the cost involved, and we need to see whether we can actually do this legally. Our authority is pretty specific about what we can and can't do."
With the EPA poised to begin moving into its space at the Wilson Building the first of the year, Costa said, the GSA cannot afford to stop work at the Wilson Building, even as it considers Norton's proposal.
"We're working hard to look at these options, but until we come to closure, we're moving ahead," he said. "We need to come to closure real soon."
CAPTION: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to move into the refurbished Wilson Building in January.
CAPTION: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton seeks a "low-cost or no-cost" solution.