Large numbers of federal workers may be moved from the District of Columbia to suburban locations throughout the metropolitan area as part of a new plan by the General Services Administration to consolidate and increase efficiency in federal offices.
Moving workers out to the suburbs is a development trend that several large southern cities have used to reduce transportation problems by creating "mini-communities" where employes could work close to their homes, GSA Administrator Terence C. Golden said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Golden is a former managing partner for Trammell Crow, one of the largest development companies in the United States. He was named GSA administrator in June after serving as an assistant secretary for administration in the Treasury Department.
D.C. officials immediately attacked the proposal, saying that, with the Metrorail system, the central city was more accessible to more Washington-area residents than suburban locations would be.
"For the first time we've really been able to pull together the necessary support facilities for an employment center in the downtown, such as hotels, expanding retail and ancillary office space," said D.C. Director of Planning Fred L. Greene. "Clearly, the city would lose a great deal if federal workers were moved to the suburbs, and that is something we could not support."
Details of the plan will not be released for several weeks, but Golden said he was proposing to move those federal agency activities that do not need to be in the central city, such as support services, accounting and data processing.
His vision, he said, was that the federal workers would be relocated to buildings on large, campus-like settings where agencies could be consolidated and run more efficiently.
GSA has been trying for several years to reduce the amount of office space used by employes, and Golden said that in new, state-of-the-art buildings GSA could operate more economically while also upgrading employes' work environment.
Golden said the proposal was part of an effort to cut government costs and to be more "sensitive" to employe needs. He added that moving federal workers closer to their homes would make commutes shorter, put employment centers closer to affordable housing and give working mothers better access to children in suburban schools and day care centers.
He said his plan grew out of discussions with some federal employes and observations of general development trends in other cities. He said GSA has not conducted any studies on federal employe preference for suburbs versus the central city.
The Office of Management and Budget and Congress would have to approve any costs related to moving federal offices, and GSA cannot purchase any buildings or sign leases for even moderate-sized buildings without congressional approval.
Officials of several federal employe unions, contacted about the GSA proposal, said they would be concerned that movement of workers to the suburbs could increase commutes for many employes and that some lower-level government workers might be forced to give up their jobs if they could not adjust to new locations.
"Even if an office was moved to Maryland, that would be convenient for the Maryland employes but not for those from Northern Virginia," said Loretta Ucelli, director of communications for the AmericanFederation of Government Employees. "We have found that such moves often have a disproportionate affect on lower-income families. It could be a double-edged sword."
Ucelli said that if there were such a plan, her union would request that the government set up a housing assistance office and consider giving displaced workers priority status for government jobs that might stay in the city.
Golden said, "I think it will have an impact on the city, but the reality is that the federal government will always have a substantial employment base in the city. What we are talking about is a trend, the direction the government will take in the next 20 to 30 years."
Golden said that a major concern of GSA was to consolidate and reorganize the federal agencies so that future growth could be planned and accommodated.
"For the 10 largest federal agencies in the Washington area there are 442 separate sites," said Golden. "They have expanded in a haphazard way, and our whole sense is that is not good judgment. There is tremendous amounts of lost time of people moving around from one building to another, and it is a very expensive way for GSA to operate."
Golden said the first three agencies to be reorganized would be Treasury, Justice and Defense departments. Treasury currently occupies 3 million square feet of space in 56 sites, Justice has 4.3 million square feet in 58 sites and Defense has 10.8 million square feet in 93 sites.
While Golden said one of GSA's key reasons for moving offices to the suburbs is an effort to reduce rental costs, he also said GSA would use the opportunity of relocating offices to move federal employes into government-owned buildings.
For the past two years GSA has talked about acquiring office space in areas where overbuilding has produced high vacancy rates but has not come close to spending the money appropriated for the purchasing program.
Over the long term, said Golden, leasing space is much more expensive than if the government purchases buildings.
He said GSA is looking at innovative ways to involve the private sector in providing new space in suburban locations for federal offices, but that they have no details to release at this time.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said he had not seen the plan but would support any plan that would enable people to work closer to their families and reduce commuting.
He said he believes employes at the U.S. Geological Survey headquarters in Reston have been very pleased with the campus-like setting of the facility, and that he would support moving federal employes to such facilities.
City officials, however, said they were not so sure federal employes wanted to move out of downtown.
"There's a lot of synergism that goes on in the downtown, and people look forward to coming into the city," Greene said. "I think it is a mistake to assume most employes would prefer to be in the outer suburbs."
Greene said that a recent proposal to move some of the functions of the Supreme Court outside of the city met with opposition from Capitol Hill area developers, who were concerned that development in the downtown would falter if federal workers were moved outside the city.
One federal employe union spokesman said that some efforts to move government offices to outer suburbs in the past have met with significant employe discontent.
Greene also said that if federal workers left, other related companies such as trade associations, consultants and law firms might follow the federal agencies out of the city.
"It could create a lot of dispersion," Green said. "I'm not sure the lobbyists want to be in the suburbs."