The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FBI’s headquarters is falling apart. Why is it so hard for America to build a new one?

A damaged wall surrounding the exterior of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Many repairs go unmade as the bureau looks for a new headquarters, but a move  is years away. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Beneath the headquarters of America’s premier crime-fighting organization, one of the parking ramps has been condemned because corroded pieces of the ceiling were falling on cars.

Netting hangs on the Ninth Street facade to prevent broken concrete from hitting passersby 160 feet down on the sidewalk below. During a July fire drill, half of the building’s alarms didn’t go off.

For more than a decade, leaders at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have warned that the bureau needed to replace the J. Edgar Hoover Building, a concrete fortress designed as a symbol of strength that has instead come to serve as a lesson in government inaction.

“Where else in the city is there something like that? The answer is nowhere,” said Dan Tangherlini, a former administrator for the General Services Administration, which oversees federal real estate. “In the private sector you would never do this. You would just fix it up.”

Three years ago, the federal government launched a search for a new site for its headquarters but that effort is months behind schedule. FBI officials fear that with Congress increasingly unwilling to pass funding measures, the move to a new building could be dramatically pushed back or set aside following next year’s election.

[GSA proposes trading Hoover Building for new FBI campus]

In the meantime, the FBI headquarters is crumbling. On a rare tour of the building, bureau officials pointed to cracked concrete, makeshift work stations in former storage areas and badly dated building systems. The officials said the structure is now so inefficient that it has begun to hinder the agency’s modern mission, one increasingly focused on combating international terrorist threats and cyber crime.

They are also increasingly concerned that the Hoover Building could be susceptible to attacks.

“Having a state-of-the-art facility that meets that mission is paramount,” said Richard L. Haley II, FBI assistant director and chief financial officer. “Security concerns are important. And you just have to open up the public records to see where you know bad things can happen if you don’t have the right security precautions.”

The Hoover Building’s decline has become a highly prominent example on Pennsylvania Avenue of the failure of Congress and the federal government to solve even straightforward real estate problems such as disposing of underused buildings or moving agencies to more efficient spaces.

Members of Congress have resisted supplying funds for construction of new buildings. The president’s budget officials have stuck to rigid spending rules that prevent the quick leasing of new space for the FBI.

The GSA proposed a building swap that could save $500 million — a laborious but cost-saving strategy similar to ones the agency has pursued in Boston, Denver and other locations across the country.

Looming over the process is the failed attempt to consolidate the Department of Homeland Security, whose own headquarters consolidation in Southeast D.C. won approval six years ago but is less than one-quarter complete, a decade behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget.

Nearly three years after the FBI’s search began a final location has not been identified and funding has not been secured. In the meantime, the FBI’s 9,500 headquarters employees are spread throughout 14 locations in the Washington region.

‘The Ugliest Building in the World’

It took 12 years to design and build Hoover. When President Ford christened it, in 1975, the FBI was a police agency in the mold of Hoover’s G-men. That year Whitey Bulger began serving the bureau as an informant against the mob. Among the fugitives listed on the bureau’s most wanted list were opponents of the Vietnam War.

At $126 million, it was the most expensive federal building ever erected, a place where the public would be invited to watch agents at work at then-state-of-art crime labs and rooms would be filled with one of the largest repositories of fingerprint records in the nation. It was not necessarily a pretty building. Some architectural critics teed off on the Brutalist design before it was even fully occupied. The criticism hasn’t stopped since. A travel Web site recently dubbed the Hoover “the ugliest building in the world,” listing it seven spots ahead of Trump Tower, in New York.

In the intervening years, many of the building’s distinctive features have become obsolete.

For instance, Hoover was designed to allow visitors to walk freely into the inner courtyard. The firing range was equipped with a 162-seat auditorium where visitors could sit and watch agents take shooting practice.

But following the Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI ended public tours. There is still a gift shop, brightly lit and neatly stocked with T-shirts and ball caps, but it’s on the eighth floor, accessible only to agents and their friends and family whom they escort upstairs.

The bureau has tried to make do with the Hoover Building despite tens of millions of dollars in overdue repairs. Inside there are not uncommon elements of older office buildings — peeling paint, ragged carpet, stained light fixtures — but there are also more laborious work-arounds. An makeshift employee gym, for instance has been laid out on one of the parking levels.

Staff on the 10th floor sit in space designed to house 35 million fingerprint cards, which were relocated to West Virginia in 1995. The crime laboratory, which moved to Quantico in 2003, was also replaced by offices.

[FBI J. Edgar Hoover Building ‘deterioriating,’ report says]

In an effort to secure its perimeter, the FBI shuttered some exterior entrances and put 298 cement planters on the sidewalks around the building, most of them filled with only dirt because plants were deemed too costly to maintain. The netting on Ninth Street catches falling pieces of concrete; Director James B. Comey Jr. keeps one of the larger pieces in his office.

Further retrofitting is prohibitively expensive; despite the Hoover building’s overall size of 2.4 million gross square feet only 53 percent of that is usable according to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Like other security agencies, said Haley, the chief financial officer, the bureau is now on the front lines of terrorism and cyber defenses that require rapid data analysis and coordination amongst officials from many different agencies and departments.

“Bonnie and Clyde on a good day might get to two or three banks,” Haley said. These days “you might be sitting in your underwear in some foreign country and steal tens of millions of dollars in an hour. Maybe that’s a cyber case. . .but it might also be a state actor, so it might be our counterintelligence unit. [Our response] requires having all of that connectivity in an infrastructure that facilitates it.”

A proposed swap

As the Hoover’s problems worsened, the FBI and GSA planned a 2.1-million-square-foot campus that could accommodate 11,000 FBI personnel within two-and-a-half miles of the Capital Beltway and two miles of a Metro station.

Unlike the Hoover Building, which is separated by a sidewalk from traffic, the new campus would likely have 50-foot setbacks with blast-resistant façades and separate facilities for mail screening and visitors.

GSA officials, lacking congressionally approved funds to build such a campus, proposed a novel solution to pay for it, trading the Hoover Building site for the money needed to build the new facility.

The strategy aimed to take advantage of booming property values along Pennsylvania Avenue and to avoid the fate of St. Elizabeths, where Congress approved the consolidation of the Department of Homeland Security but repeatedly failed to provide construction money. The search has narrowed to three sites, in Greenbelt, Landover and Springfield, and attracted a half dozen big money development teams interested in the work.

[Finalists for new FBI headquarters are in Greenbelt, Landover and Springfield]

But the swap might not be enough because the cost of the new headquarters may badly outweigh the value of the Hoover Building; one executive closely tracking the deal estimated that a new FBI campus could cost between $1.4 billion and $2 billion while the Hoover building might fetch only $500 million.

Dorothy Robyn, a former head of public buildings at the GSA, said she still thinks the swap is the best course of action. “There is absolutely no reason the swap shouldn’t go forward. The question has always been, will it pay for the entire facility? And then the question is if it doesn’t, then what do you do then?”

Part of the GSA’s reasoning for swapping land to build the FBI headquarters and other projects is avoiding budgeting rules at the Office of Management and Budget. In recent weeks officials familiar with the process say OMB officials have come around to providing more support for the project through the appropriations process.

An OMB spokesperson said the agency “remains committed to a process that includes both the exchange of the FBI’s current J.E. Hoover headquarters building, and seeking additional funding as may be necessary at one of the three potential sites.”

“The administration will identify and request resources to cover the full cost of the new headquarters facility as part of the annual budget process,” the spokesperson wrote.

On Oct. 14 the GSA announced that it planned to begin seeking formal proposals from developers by the end of the year, but there remains uncertainty over funding.

There are signs of growing impatience among members of Congress overseeing the bureau. Late last month Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth raising concerns about the “widespread doubt as to whether GSA will be able to obtain $1.2 billion from a developer for the Hoover building.”

Without funding, Hoover and the other FBI buildings will remain in a state of purgatory — not worth fixing, but not worth saving.

“Underfunding this project would risk re-creating some of the same problems the consolidation project was designed to solve,” Grassley wrote.

News researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this story.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz