The General Services Administration plans to vacate two leased buildings in the Washington area next year for what might be an unprecedented reason: "poor performance" by the landlord.
The two facilities, the Gramax Building in Silver Spring and the Plaza West Building in Rosslyn, are both owned by Albert Ginsberg, a New York entrepreneur who is widely regarded within GSA's local office as the least responsive building owner who rents to the government.
At the Gramax building, GSA ran into trouble with Ginsberg's local management company over flammable ceiling tiles that were not removed, as required by a fire safety survey in 1983. The tiles contributed to spreading an electrical fire throughout two floors of the building, severely damaging the headquarters offices of the National Weather Service. At Plaza West, numerous safety deficiencies have remained uncorrected, GSA officials said, prompting the agency to make the decision to move.
According to community planning documents sent to Capitol Hill, GSA now plans to relocate the Weather Service, and some other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices now located in Georgetown, into a new leased facility in the Washington area. According to the document, it would cost $64.9 million to build a new facility, but $71.8 million to lease one for 30 years. GSA chose the more expensive option, said Public Buildings Commissioner William F. Sullivan, because of the four-year lead time for new construction.
Footnote: Sullivan and Commerce Department officials are now trying to come up with a plan to relocate NOAA operations and the Weather Service permanently in federal facilities that would be constructed at the Southeast Federal Center adjacent to the Washington Navy Yard.
Consider these facts: In 1983, GSA decided that it did not need a supply warehouse in Shelby, Ohio, and put it up for sale. A then-secret appraisal showed the property was worth $3.4 million, but the highest bid received was $2 million. GSA officials in Washington decided to drop the deal because regulations required properties to be sold at at least 90 percent of fair-market value.
In 1984, GSA got two new appraisals -- one showing the property was worth $2.1 million and the other claiming it was worth $2.4 million -- and tried to sell the property again. The high bid was $1.369 million -- or $631,000 less than the previous offer.
But this time the rules had changed, and GSA's regional office in Chicago was authorized to make the deal without abiding by the 90 percent of fair-market-value standard and without clearing the sale with GSA's headquarters in Washington.
So the sale went through.
Rep. Michael G. Oxley (D-Ohio) was outraged and complained to the General Accounting Office. Last week, the GAO concluded that GSA followed its procedures to the letter -- although there was some reason to believe that those procedures should be changed to avoid having the federal government take another loss.
Earl E. Jones, GSA's Federal Property Resources Service commissioner, said he now wants GSA's acting administrator, Dwight A. Ink, to sign an order that would allow the Washington office to again review all sales.
"We don't want to vest that much authority in the regions if they're going to do things like this," Jones said.
Should GSA building managers be responsible for assessing the toxic hazards associated with polychlorinated biphenyls?
Last November, GSA's Inspector General charged that GSA officials did not move to notify the Environmental Protection Agency or to clean up a spill within the 48 hours mandated by federal law. And over the succeeding four months, nothing was done, said GSA spokeswoman Marcella Banks.
"We did not believe that there was anything dangerous," Banks said, "but we have since learned that we directly violated the regulations that require cleanup actions to begin within 48 hours."
When the audit was released two weeks ago, the investigators said the spill was still there and lives could be endangered.
Public Buildings Commissioner Sullivan ordered his staff to immediately order the cleanup when he learned of the matter earlier this week. Now, Banks said, a waste-management contractor was being hired to rectify the situation.
"This is clearly not the way these things are supposed to be done," said Sullivan. "I think they've learned to follow the law and the regulations without second guessing."
In 1969, GSA and the Hyatt Regency Hotel determined that they would be sharing a small lawn between the Peachtree-Baker Federal Building and the hotel in Atlanta. The two organizations decided to share maintenance costs.
Or did they?
Last month, GSA's Inspector General said in an audit that there once was a contractual agreement specifying that GSA would not maintain the lawn because Hyatt guests regularly "litter the area." The auditors said the agreement had been lost and over the years, GSA has maintained the parcel at a cost of about $1,000 a year for shrubbery, mowing, herbicides, fertilizers and pruning.
"In our opinion, it does not make sense for the government to maintain private property at taxpayers' expense," said Wallace A. Dietrich, the IG's regional auditor in Atlanta.
Ralph O. Howard, GSA's regional counsel, said the IG's conclusion involves "a whole lot of imagination." While Howard said there were notes in the file about the costs of maintaining the lawn, GSA never executed a contract to maintain the 19-by-300-foot strip of greenery.
"We stay on our side and they stay on theirs," Howard said, pointing out that some "bits of fertilizer or seed" might cross the unfenced boundary. "But some of their seed might land on our ground, too," he said. "The IG has come up with a legal conclusion and that is erroneous, and I'm sorry about that."
Daniel Peyser, general counsel for the IG, said he found Howard's comments "intemperate."