Mayor Anthony A. Williams is exploring the idea of selling several key D.C. government buildings--including the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW and the Indiana Avenue NW building that houses police headquarters--as part of a plan to dramatically restructure the city's bureaucracy by moving agencies into neighborhoods.
The Department of Employment Services building at Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW also would be sold, as would the temporary city hall at One Judiciary Square, which officials will vacate once the renovation of the John A. Wilson Building is completed.
The idea, said Williams (D), would be to sell the properties in today's hot commercial real estate market and raise tens of millions of dollars that could be used in part to build city offices that would help spur economic development in neighborhoods across town. More than 7,000 city employees would be relocated.
"We're in the drawing board stages," the mayor said, stressing that many details have to be worked out and that he plans to talk with other D.C. officials, D.C. Council members and residents about his idea. "The concept is to capture the value of these buildings to help defray the cost of investing in neighborhoods to better service the community, offer better customer service and provide better working conditions for employees.
"I'd like to consider selling" the D.C. government buildings, Williams added. "Let's put our headquarters in the Wilson Building, and everything else let's get out in the neighborhoods."
The most delicate of Williams's propositions likely would be selling the Franklin D. Reeves Center, an eight-story, 533,000-square-foot city office building that was a pet project of former mayor Marion Barry.
Opened in 1986, it has been a $50 million symbol of the city's commitment to redeveloping the area around 14th and U, which was devastated by the 1968 riots. Though named for the first African American named to the city's old Board of Commissioners, the Reeves Center for much of its existence also has been a monument to Barry, who while mayor had his name attached to the building in large, metal letters.
Thirteen years after the Reeves Center opened, Barry's vision for that area finally is being realized, with a growing business district and renewed interest in neighborhood homes. Williams's idea would be to replicate that success in other parts of town that need economic development--partly by selling the Reeves Center.
But selling a symbol of the city's recovery from the riots doesn't appeal to Linda W. Cropp (D), chairman of the D.C. Council. The council would have to endorse any plan to sell government buildings.
"The Reeves Center helped to revitalize the [14th and U] corridor, and I'm not sure if I would be interested in destabilizing that community," Cropp said. " . . . Before the city leaps into selling prime real estate, we should take a long-range look at the impact. I support moving certain services to communities, but I'm not sure we're at the place where we're selling prime real estate. . . . But I do have an open mind."
Barry said he endorses selling the building at One Judiciary Square if it would benefit the city financially. But he said selling the Reeves Center would be a mistake.
"District government should not move out of there," Barry said. "Development is psychological and real. The Reeves Center gives people confidence. It's the anchor of development for 14th and U. We saw this entire neighborhood come back."
Williams acknowledged that the Reeves Center's symbolic significance--as well as its role in aiding the recovery of the area around 14th and U--means that the city would have to receive a very lucrative offer to sell it.
"The Reeves Center is the most remote of the options," the mayor said, "but it is something we are considering. . . . [It] has clearly made a positive impact on U Street."
Williams added that he would consider selling the Reeves Center "if we can get the right price for [it] in a way that benefits U Street expansion and does not undermine the revitalization that has already taken place."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the mayor's idea for restructuring government offices moves away from earlier proposals to centralize D.C. government to make it more efficient. But, he said, the mayor might be on the right track.
"It's an idea that needs to be explored," Evans said. "There are many issues that need to be debated: What do other cities do? What seems to work in other places? Access to the Metro would be critical [in building new offices]. But the mayor deserves credit for thinking about these things."
Williams has talked for months about finding ways to move D.C. agencies--and employees--into troubled neighborhoods that need an economic boost, particularly those east of the Anacostia River.
Williams said no decisions on which agencies could be moved where have been made. The mayor--who has been burned in the past by serving up proposals without vetting them beforehand with others--said he plans to consult council members and business, community and religious leaders before moving ahead with an official proposal.
Abdusalam Omer, the mayor's chief of staff, said: "We are not going to put agencies in neighborhoods that are doing fine. We're looking at neighborhoods that need economic empowerment. We want government to make an investment in neighborhoods where the private sector is not ready to make an investment."
It's unclear how the mayor's idea would affect the D.C. government's agreement to allow the federal government to occupy offices in the 536,000-square-foot, 11-story building at One Judiciary Square once city officials return to the Wilson Building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The talk of selling D.C. government buildings comes as office space in downtown Washington is increasingly expensive and hard to find. According to the commercial real estate services firm CB Richard Ellis, only 4.9 percent of 13 million square feet of prime office space was vacant this month, with rents averaging $36.50 a square foot.
Scott Frankel, senior director of Cushman & Wakefield Inc., said the real estate consulting company has been retained by the District to analyze potential office relocations and cited that relationship in declining to comment further.
But, Frankel added, D.C. "office buildings are selling at an all-time high, so from a fiscal standpoint [Williams's idea] makes sense."
Other real estate professionals said a city sell-off not only would create development in neighborhoods where agencies would be relocated, but also free office space in the sizzling downtown real estate market. But they cautioned that the four city-owned buildings vary in quality and that sales might not happen overnight.
While the building at One Judiciary Square is near the heart of the downtown business district and is considered an attractive property, brokers are less familiar with the nearby police headquarters and say it could require extensive renovation before new tenants could move in.
The Reeves Center, meanwhile, is in a fringe business district where some trade associations are only beginning to lease space. Of the four buildings being considered for sale, only the six-story, 200,000-square-foot Department of Employment Services building is regarded as a prime development location, analysts said.
Mitchell Schear, president of the Kaempfer Co. development firm, said the Employment Services site is "as prime a site as one can envision in downtown D.C."
Near the Canadian Embassy, the site is the last Pennsylvania Avenue address that has not been redeveloped in recent decades. Some builders estimated that the site might fetch as much as $60 million if it could be fully developed as commercial office space.
Earlier this year, Washington developer Richard Carr met with D.C. officials to discuss buying the Employment Services site as part of a plan to build a hotel and condominiums there. Carr offered to erect an office building in Southeast Washington to house the agency's workers but has said it is premature to suggest there is any agreement on such a plan.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.