WE WANTED to take a look at the luxurious new offices the D.C. government selected as its temporary headquarters while the District Building undergoes a supposedly necessary renovation. We were curious because of the impressive cost of the lease: $216 million. There was one problem: we couldn't find the offices. That, it turns out, is because the building hasn't even been built. In a city where the real estate market is as soft as warm butter, where there is an office space vacancy rate of at least 8.4 percent, leave it to the District government to lease a building that doesn't exist.
In case you have forgotten, we're talking about the "we don't have enough money" local government here. The one whose bond rating just slipped another notch, the one that wants to borrow $50 million to cover day-to-day government operations, adding to the $200 million it has already borrowed; the government that is running $28 million short in revenues so far this year, the government that is watching its wealthiest taxpayers scurry to the suburbs.
Has the government now signed a 20-year, $216 million lease, even though the District Building renovations will take only three to five years? Is it possible that construction of the leased building might not be finished by next summer, when District Building employees must move out of their old offices? Did less expensive alternatives exist? Was this, in fact, the most expensive option? Was the deal made without competitive bidding? Was a partner in the deal someone who is also involved in five other real estate partnerships, each of which has made political contributions to Mayor Marion Barry? How loudly can you yell "Yes!" to each of those questions?
Some members of the D.C. Council have voiced concerns over all this. "I don't want my colleagues on the council sitting out in the parking lot," says council member Betty Ann Kane. Council member John Wilson adds, "By the time you lease one building and renovate the District Building, the two costs would be enough to build a new building." Such is the cost-consciousness of the current mayoral administration.