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The Underdog: How a Greenbelt attorney became an unlikely frontrunner to win the FBI headquarters

Among the companies vying to build a new headquarters for the FBI are some of the biggest real estate firms on the East Coast.

There is the $18 billion publicly-traded real estate empire, Boston Properties, owner of 50 million square feet in and around the District, New York, San Francisco and Boston.

There is Ted Lerner, the $4.4 billion magnate who owns shopping malls, office buildings, apartment complexes and the Washington Nationals.

Then there is the slender, brown-haired attorney in his Prince George’s County office. His name is Garth E. Beall.

As a teenager Beall worked in the kitchen at Fireside Beef House on Greenbelt Road, the second restaurant in what became the Ledo Pizza string of restaurants begun by his grandfather. He went to the University of Maryland law school.

“The plan was to do law school a couple years and then go back into the family business. I really didn’t picture myself going into real estate,” he said.

Beall still helps out part-time with the Ledo business. But after landing a job at McNamee Hosea Attorneys and Advisors, he was hired to represent a series of family trusts that, through a deal made 14 years ago for land at the Metro Greenbelt Station, now find themselves a strong contender for what may be the biggest Washington real estate project in a generation.

The headquarters complex envisioned by the FBI would house 11,000 personnel consolidated from 20 locations around the region, a federal mini-city that would likely include ancillary housing, shopping, offices and hotels.

Relocating the agency has become a burning local political issue. Nearly every member of Congress in the region, as well as the Virginia and Maryland governors, have weighed in on why their jurisdiction is best suited for the complex.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chair of the powerful appropriations committee, has made it her personal mission to secure the FBI headquarters for her home state. At a March rally held at the University of Maryland, Mikulski, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), House Minority Whip Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and other officials each took turn pumping up the crowd.

“We’re tired of Prince George’s being red-lined, by-lined, sidelined — it’s time to say goodbye to that old image and hello to the new jobs, leading the way with the FBI,” Mikulski roared into the microphone, prompting cheers from the crowd.

The unassuming man responsible for actually coming up with a plan to win the competition, who has cleaned up failed strategies, resolved a divisive lawsuit and ousted a onetime partner convicted of a felony, never took the stage.

Beall, a 41-year-old father of two, says he rarely sleeps more than four or five hours a night and stays up watching the History Channel to pass the time. He says it’s not because work keeps him awake, but that would be plenty excuse.

He got involved with the site through Alfred H.Smith Jr., a former chairman and chief executive of Citizens Bank. In the late 1990s Smith assembled a partnership to develop the 82-acre parking lot and Kiss and Ride area at the Greenbelt Metro station, a stop that had opened in 1993.

The Smith family owned thousands of acres in Maryland related to their sand and gravel business, including some 170 acres in Greenbelt. In 2000, Smith and partners including Clark Realty and Petrie Dierman Kuhn inked an agreement with Metro for the property. The developers began paying the agency for the right to acquire and develop the property down the road.

In 2007, with the real estate market in retreat, Smith, then 74, signed papers putting Beall in charge of a series of family trusts that, though they included various assets and assorted land deals, also carried debt, legal issues and contracts that were falling apart because of the collapsing real estate market.

Smith dropped the last of the papers in the mail back to Beall. He was dead by the time they arrived.

“I knew that it was a possibility because he had diabetes, he had a stroke before,” Beall said. “So I can’t say that it was a total shock, but I expected him to be around a number of years. I certainly didn’t expect to be responsible for trying to resolve these issues on all these projects.  But I basically just buckled down. The family always excelled in terms of support. It was one of those things where we just knew it wasn’t going to be finished quickly. It was going to be painful, it would just take a while to get resolved. It was very, very painful.”

The Greenbelt agreement proved one of the most complicated to manage. One original partner, Annapolis developer Walt Petrie, had sued Metro in a disagreement over the deal and eventually abandoned the project. Another minority partner for a brief time, Patrick Ricker, turned out to be a key figure in then-Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson’s widespread bribery and corruption scheme. Beall ushered him out of the deal.

Beall and the family considered allowing the deal with Metro to expire. But by 2008, a few months after Smith’s passing, there were increased rumblings that the FBI wanted out of the dated J. Edgar Hoover Building downtown, and an agency official took a look at Beall’s plans. “They seemed very interested in it. They hadn’t seen it. It seemed to fit what they were looking for,” he said.

In 2011 Beall and the family decided to double down on their Greenbelt bet. More than $1 million had already been paid to Metro to retain the Greenbelt rights and they decided to extend the deal, at a cost of $394,400, on the faint hope of landing the FBI.

“I said, ‘There’s maybe a 10 percent chance that we’ll win this, but if we do it will be big. And at the end of the day I think they just said, ‘Well what do you think?’ And I think my response was it’s not a small amount of money but I think it’s worth it. And the alternative was just to walk away.’”

To date Metro has been paid $1.7 million for the site and the trusts have spent more than $6 million on the project, to traffic consultants, engineers and architects.

The deadline for landowners to submit sites to the General Services Administration is June 2, and nearly every expert watching the process expects Greenbelt to be among the few finalists.

With so much land near a Metro station and the Capital Beltway, the site seems to fit the criteria closely. Beall has not released his specific plans but said he will offer to provide 60 acres of the site to the FBI for free, enough space to build four office buildings totaling 2.3 million square feet of office space. The financial prize is the chance to build on the rest of the site, where Beall plans up to 2 million square feet of offices, housing, hotels and retail.

Although Beall has not hired a lobbyist, elected officials in Maryland and the county have lined up unanimously behind the Greenbelt site. Montgomery County officials opted against bidding at all. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III — shunning a proposal by the Lerners for another site in his county — offered a subsidy package for Greenbelt worth $112 million, at a cost of $155 million to the county. The FBI at Greenbelt would be the biggest county-supported private project since National Harbor.

David S. Iannucci, a top economic development aide to Baker, compared the possibility of the FBI coming to Greenbelt to the Pentagon’s construction in Arlington. “It could radically change our economy,” he said.

Rather than remaining on the sidelines, Governor O’Malley’s staff jumped on board as well. Jerry Sanford, who oversees business development for the governor, said the site’s strengths distinguished itself from nearly a dozen others the state looked at. “I don’t think you can find that much acreage adjacent to a Metro station and adjacent to the Capital Beltway in Maryland,” he said.

Beall said he speaks almost daily with state and county staff on strategy. But he is happy to remain in the background.

“I can control what I can control,”  he said. “Those guys, the politicians and all, they want the credit for this stuff and I am happy to let them take it. My primary goal has always been just to make this thing happen. This still could go a lot of different ways. I’m still giving it a 50-5o shot.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz