The Bush administration has narrowed its search for a Department of Homeland Security headquarters to three sites in Northern Virginia and is pressing Congress for immediate approval, congressional sources said yesterday.
The intense search process, conducted in secrecy over the past month, is on track for a selection to be announced in the next two weeks, federal officials said.
Real estate industry and congressional sources said the leading sites include a Chantilly office park on Route 28 near the headquarters of the high-security National Reconnaissance Office. Also in contention are two Tysons Corner sites near the Dulles Toll Road and the Capital Beltway.
The imminent decision marks a major step toward the creation of a 177,000-employee department by a Jan. 24 deadline set by Congress and, if Virginia becomes the agency's home, in the evolution of the metropolitan region. It would establish the first Cabinet agency outside the District since the Pentagon was completed during World War II.
Landowners have been told to be ready for the government to sign a seven-to-10-year lease and to begin moving in equipment and furniture Jan. 17. The government has sought 275,000 square feet, space for about 1,000 employees, with the first to move in as early as Jan. 24. The government also announced recently a demand for an option to double that space within six months for an additional 1,000 workers, part of the estimated 17,000 employees who will be consolidated in the new department from 22 agencies across the Washington area. The remaining workers will be in offices in other parts of the country.
"The search has been narrowed down to three sites in Virginia," a congressional source said yesterday, speaking anonymously because of concerns about the sensitivity of the political battle for the headquarters among Virginia, the District and Maryland. A second congressional official corroborated that account.
Michael McGill, a spokesman for the General Services Administration, the federal government's real estate arm, declined to comment.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Homeland Security secretary-designee Tom Ridge, said no decision on a "future, permanent headquarters" has been made. But, he added, "They're getting closer."
Separately, a House official said that Republican leaders were drafting language yesterday that would allow the administration to bypass a normal review by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and win blanket approval on the House floor for its plan to lease up to 575,000 square feet at an annual cost of up to $25.9 million. The measure would be added to emergency legislation set to pass by tomorrow to fund the federal government in the absence of a budget approval.
House Democrats and District officials yesterday assailed what they called a "rush to judgment" and a "midnight $250 million lease" but said they would be limited in their ability to prevent the administration from getting its way because of the GOP majority's control of procedural rules. Maryland officials also said they were unhappy at losing out on a potential economic windfall.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who said the department is worth $171 million over five years, said the District was slighted by the search process but would lobby to host a government-owned department headquarters in the future, if one is built.
"The shame is that the Virginia sites were preselected . . . There was never a level playing field," Norton said. "The big loser here would be the District . . . but a permanent decision has not been finally made."
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), ranking member on the transportation panel, condemned the handling of the $250 million deal. "It's an effort to bypass standard procedure . . . and proper fiscal responsibility."
Officials in Virginia, where the high-tech industry implosion hit the real estate sector especially hard, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) also declined to comment, and aides to the area's congressional delegation said little publicly.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) expressed disappointment at the elimination of the District from contention, saying the process ran counter to the interests of national security and the nation's capital. Asked if the District had been treated fairly, Williams said, "I would have to say I don't think so."
Although Homeland Security officials have indicated that the soon-to-be-chosen site will be their permanent home, members of Congress and District and Maryland officials said they hold out hope that the government eventually will build its own facility elsewhere.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said she was preparing a letter calling on Maryland Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to wage a last-ditch effort to raise the prospects of local sites, a spokeswoman said.
Ehrlich's office did not respond to a telephone call for comment.
Sources in the real estate industry said that GSA and Homeland Security officials have been visiting sites and interviewing many landlords in recent weeks. They cautioned that the decision by GSA and Homeland Security officials is being made quickly, and the top contenders could change at the last minute.
The top candidate farthest from Washington is at 15036 Conference Center Dr. in Chantilly. The 275,000-square-foot site, now vacant, was acquired late last year by investment firm Carr Capital. Adjacent land is available for a second building with 250,000 square feet.
Also in contention are the McKinley Buildings in Tysons Corner. The two structures, at 7555 and 7575 Colshire Drive, are leased by Northrop Grumman subsidiary Litton PRC. The government contractor occupies one of the buildings.
The third contender named by industry sources was formerly occupied by Litton PRC. It is a single building, currently vacant, at 1500 PRC Dr., a short distance from the McKinley Buildings, and is owned by the Peterson Cos.
Representatives of the companies either declined to comment or did not immediately return a call for comment yesterday evening.
Staff writers Lisa Rein and Michael Laris contributed to this report.