In New York City, some of the most sought-after high-rise apartments overlook Central Park. In Paris, outdoor cafés line the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The Terreiro do Paço, in Lisbon, is not only bordered by a bustling downtown, but endless views of the Atlantic Ocean. ¶ A block away from Washington’s central attraction, the National Mall, there is little of this. Steps from the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, the Hirshorn Museum and the National Air and Space Museum is a complex of five government office buildings that collectively could not be more boring architecturally or uninviting to someone considering a stroll down Independence Avenue. There are few places to eat, little to see and the streets are interrupted by railroad tracks, overpasses and structures such as the looming James V. Forrestal Building that straddles 10th Street SW.
The urban mix might be redeemable if the buildings were providing federal workers with a suitable office space, but few consider that the case. The Cotton Annex, an 118,000-square-foot building on 12th Street, has been empty for more than five years. The regional office building of the General Services Administration, built as a warehouse in 1932, is home to 1,400 Department of Homeland Security workers who are supposed to move to a consolidated headquarters project that has been delayed by budget cuts.
Change may be coming. The GSA announced at the end of September that it plans to seek ideas from the private sector for what to do with the drab cluster of buildings, opening the door to what could be the largest redevelopment of federal land in downtown Washington since the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center was built 15 years ago. The stakes for the government and the city are high.
The Ronald Reagan building opened in 1998, a $768 million project that took more than a decade of planning and construction to build. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Ellerbe Becket, it brought a conference and office facility to Pennsylvania Avenue real estate that was once home to a district of bordellos and bars and later left to languish as an immense surface parking lot. It became the second largest federal building next to the Pentagon.
But just as the Reagan building opened, the goal posts for successful downtown development moved. Nationwide, cities had painfully turned the corner transitioning out of industrial economies and a nascent migration back to urban neighborhoods had begun.
The Reagan building did not exactly fit the changing sensibilities. The project failed to re-connect the street grid, something both District and federal planners now push for at nearly every opportunity. The project failed to include any housing, an ingredient that helped fuel growth in places such as Penn Quarter and Gallery Place.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks also helped to isolate the building. Though it has a large interior food court and a connection to the Metro, visitors must pass through metal detectors. A tourist center opened in the building by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce closed in 2008 in part because of the increased security requirements.
Planning and real estate experts say the lessons of the Reagan project are likely to inform redevelopment of the Southwest collection of buildings the GSA is calling Federal Triangle South. The 22-acre area is bounded by Independence Avenue to the north, Sixth Street to the east, Maryland Avenue and portions of D Street to the south, and 12th Street to the west.
The National Capital Planning Commission has been pushing for a major overhaul of the complex for years. Its most recent plan is to turn a larger, 110-acre area between 6th and 12th streets into an “ecodistrict” over the next 20 to 25 years that would set the stage for another 1 million square feet of office space, 1.8 million square feet of housing and 1.2 million square feet of cultural attractions, including five sites for new memorials. By upgrading its facilities, NCPC estimates that the federal government could also reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the area by 51 percent and water use by 70 percent.
“From our standpoint it’s a great opportunity to transform this area between the National Mall and the Southwest Waterfront,” said Marcel C. Acosta, NCPC executive director.
The federal complex consists of five buildings varying from 48 to 80 years old. The buildings total 3.9 million square feet and house 12,656 employees from the Energy Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the GSA. Even without zoning changes, experts said the area could bear an additional 2.2 million square feet of development.
“It is excellent and unparalleled real estate,” said Dean Cinkala, a partner at the JBG Cos., the Chevy Chase real estate giant that owns L’Enfant Plaza nearby.
The GSA’s acting director, Daniel M. Tangherlini, issued a statement calling the agency’s request for ideas “an example of GSA’s ongoing commitment to not only shrinking the federal government’s real estate portfolio, but also to maximizing the efficiency and value of federal workplaces.”
NCPC’s Acosta was one of a number of planning experts who strongly suggested that the GSA follow recent successes elsewhere in the District — such as Penn Quarter and Columbia Heights — by incorporating a mix of uses on the site. And that means housing.
Condos may never be added atop the Smithsonian institutions that line the National Mall, but new high-end housing is creeping closer and closer.
Penn Quarter, a neighborhood name that was unheard of when the Reagan Center was completed, has become one of the most sought-after places to live in the region. Those living in the Newseum Residences, 135 luxury apartments at 565 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, and the Residences at Market Square, 801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, probably come closest to living on the Mall.
Similar housing could find its way to Federal Triangle South with the right incentives, said Gerry Widdicombe, director of economic development at the Downtown Business Improvement District. But there are hurdles. Redevelopment of federal land can be a tricky process, governed by complex rules and political rivalries. Some politicians have been urging the GSA to sell off underused land to raise funds. If the GSA is required to get the best price for its real estate, it could lead to more office-focused development.
If members of Congress “are putting pressure on them, then the city needs to get involved there or the GSA will create another central business district,” Widdicombe said.
In order for shops such as dry cleaners and coffee shops to remain open on weekends and evenings, Widdicombe argued that at least 2,000 residents are probably needed in the area. City officials agree. Harriet Tregoning, planning director for the District, said, “there absolutely should be housing there.”
“It’s a great opportunity to create a live-where-you-work community,” she said.
Robert A. Peck, who ran the GSA’s Public Buildings Service until his ouster in the spring following a scandal over conference expenditures, said the effort to transform the Independence Avenue area predated his time at the GSA. Success will likely depend on whether the agency can identify hard-to-come-by investment dollars up front or be permitted the leeway to lease or sell some land and reinvest the proceeds to build smaller, more efficient federal facilities.
“I think the idea of optimizing the value of the government’s real estate south of the Mall, making it a more architecturally lively space is a great idea and one that’s been kicking around for awhile,” Peck said. “Unfortunately the government’s rules are not known for flexibility and creativity on this kind of real estate transaction, but I hope that GSA gets the support it needs to take it somewhere.”
Though Tangherlini’s arrival at the GSA (just as Peck was leaving) was chaotic, fraught with politics and certainly not prescripted, Widdicombe argued that the transition was one that will likely keep redevelopment efforts locally on track.
Both men are District residents who have spent considerable time working on behalf of local initiatives, whether government, transportation or historic preservation. Tangherlini is a former city administrator and transportation director in the District; he knows most every lever of the city’s bureaucracy. He’s worked with Tregoning, he’s worked with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and he’s worked with nearly every member of the D.C. Council.
“It’s no accident” that the GSA issued the notice for Federal Triangle South less than six months after Tangherlini arrived, Widdicombe said.
“Dan is a unique individual who can get things done,” he added. “He shares a love of the District, and both he and Bob live in the District. And they’ve lived here a long time.”
Square feet of development the area could accommodate without zoning changes.