Metro will seek to sell its hulking headquarters in downtown Washington and decamp to smaller office spaces in the District, Maryland and Virginia after a vote Thursday by Metro’s board of directors.
The Jackson Graham Building, a brutalist behemoth on Fifth Street NW adjacent to Capital One Arena, has served as Metro’s headquarters since 1974.
Metro officials say the building’s infrastructural systems have become outdated, decrepit and in need of costly repair. Metro officials say it makes more financial sense to sell the building, cash in on the prime real estate and look at smaller spaces in the region.
On Thursday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board gave the transit agency the official approval to start pursuing buyers for the building and to launch the search for new office spaces.
“We are at a critical point. This building has major systems that are 45 years old and are at the end of their useful lives,” said Nina Albert, managing director of real estate and parking at Metro.
Valuations of the building conducted in 2016 suggest that the property could be worth $56 million to $132 million.
The idea of selling the Jackson Graham Building has been floated for years, but Albert said its hastening deterioration means that the transit agency must take action now. The building is in urgent need of costly plumbing, heating, air-conditioning and electrical repairs. And because the building has been grandfathered under older regulations, it does not meet modern standards for fire safety — there is no sprinkler system, for example — nor does it meet public-accommodations regulations for people with disabilities.
Albert said estimates show that moving to new offices would save more than $130 million in operating and capital expenses over the next two decades.
On Thursday, most board members said they agreed that selling — rather than renovating the existing headquarters — was ultimately the best approach.
“It would be disastrous to try to renovate this building. It would be nonsensical,” said Corbett Price, a member of the Metro board.
Moreover, Price said, trying to carry on with Metro’s business while overhauling the insides of the building would be “catastrophic.”
About 3,400 of Metro’s staffers and consultants occupy 10 offices throughout the region, with about 45 percent of those workers in the Jackson Graham Building.
Under the plan approved by the board, the agency would have seven offices. An office in the District would continue to serve as the agency’s headquarters, but some employees working downtown would be transferred to beefed-up offices in Maryland and Virginia.
Metro’s plan would reduce the total office space of the transit agency by about 100,000 square feet. The agency has appointed a commercial real estate brokerage firm, Jones Lang LaSalle, to conduct the hunt for new office space.
No final decisions on the sale of the building, or the purchase of alternative properties, would be made without another round of board approval.
The prospect of selling Metro’s bulky downtown mother ship has gained traction as downtown revitalization has sent commercial property values higher.
In 2008, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) pushed Metro to sell its headquarters and move the agency to Anacostia, freeing up space in downtown Washington and also encouraging development in Southeast. But the plan stalled. Years later, former Fenty aide Neil Albert said, “It didn’t happen because we couldn’t get consensus from the board members.”
The sale is further complicated because the building is connected to critical subterranean Metro infrastructure. The property features air shafts that provide ventilation to the Red Line tunnel, and the building has huge industrial chillers on the roof that pump in cool air to the Gallery Place, Judiciary Square and Archives-Navy Memorial stations. There is a direct exit from the Red Line tunnel into the building.
Any sale of the building would need to preserve or replace those features. Demolition and construction could be complicated by the subway tunnel running directly underneath the property and could limit the commercial uses — i.e., no underground parking garages.
Board member Michael Goldman was the lone board member to raise significant concerns about the potential move, questioning whether the predicted savings over the next 20 years would be sizable enough to justify the expense of moving.
And if Metro administrators do intend to move, he said, they should not limit their search for new headquarters to the District.
“You should be looking for the best deal for WMATA — whether that deal is in Rosslyn or Crystal City or Friendship Heights,” Goldman said. “That should be your objective, rather than limiting your search to D.C.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he wants to keep the agency’s main office in the District, close to a major transit transfer point. (That logic would suggest the agency will aim its search for properties near Gallery Place, Metro Center and L’Enfant Plaza.)
The agency will also be looking for office spaces that offer a reprieve from the Jackson Graham Building’s prototypical 1970s aesthetic: dark interiors, low ceilings, lots of concrete and fluorescent lighting.
Wiedefeld suggested that a new, shinier office could be good for staff morale and recruiting talent from other transit agencies or from the private sector.
“They’re expecting to work in a certain type of work environment,” Wiedefeld said, “and this building does not reflect that.”
Jack Evans (D), chairman of the Metro board and D.C. Council member for Ward 2, said he is excited for the potential opportunities that could come to Gallery Place with such a sizable land parcel on the market.
“I think it will be a great site for new construction,” Evans said, citing the property’s proximity to Capital One Arena. “I’d love to see the arena opened up enormously, so maybe there’s a synergy between this site and that one.”