A decade after the FBI began considering where to move, the government is considering three locations for the headquarters, Greenbelt, Springfield and Landover. All are closer to Metro than the Mark Center but concerns about transit accessibility arose recently for two reasons.
First the General Services Administration, which is managing the search, is not considering Metro access a determining factor in deciding on a location. William Dowd, who oversees the FBI project for GSA, told the National Capital Planning Commission last week that his agency would not give greater consideration to a site close to a Metro station when determining where to put the FBI and what companies would build it.
“There is not a specific credit for being closer to transit,” Dowd said.
In that scenario, the Greenbelt site — located on a Metro station parking lot, immediately next to the station — would rate equally as sites in Springfield, which is about a mile from Metro and Landover, which is two miles from a rail line. This despite a local real estate market that has demonstrated over and over that the difference between two miles and a short walk from a station carries enormous value.
Second, the GSA has begun planning to build thousands more parking spaces than originally envisioned, stoking concerns about the traffic that could result from the arrival of 11,000 FBI employees. Since beginning the process, the GSA increased the proposed number of spaces at two sites, Greenbelt and Springfield, reflecting new expectations from the agency that more FBI employees would drive to work than originally envisioned.
Commissioners at NCPC, which guides federal planning, repeatedly questioned the new parking assumptions. Chairman Preston Bryant, Jr. asked if there was anything that could be done to close the gaps. Commissioner Peter May said it was “a little puzzling to me that at any point we would see a reason not to stick with the standard ratios.”
“It sounds like you’re essentially — you’ve looked at what NCPC provides in the way of guidance for this and you’ve determined that you know better,” May said. “And I don’t know that we would agree with that ultimately. So I think that you’re kind of setting yourself up for expanded battles down the line.”
Behind the scenes, similar questions were raised by planners and economic development officials from Prince George’s County, who told GSA officials in a meeting recently that they were concerned to see the site with the best Metro access, Greenbelt, potentially burdened with nearly 2,500 additional parking spaces even though it is located next door to the station.
“We had a hard time understanding how come only 1,200 additional FBI employees would use Metro at a station where it’s walkable versus one where it’s two miles away and a shuttle is required,” said David S. Iannucci, a top economic development aide to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, in an interview.
The changes threaten to undermine a key advantage the Greenbelt site offered over the competition, said Garth E. Beall, the developer pitching the site.
“One of the significant advantages of Greenbelt is it’s close proximity to Metro, MARC and public bus service,” Beall said in an email. “For the FBI, walkability and the lack of a need for a shuttle at Greenbelt means greater convenience for employees and visitors as well as lower operating costs and lower parking costs for the Government. Public transportation helps reduce road congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.” He asked that GSA provide a “clear incentive” promoting public transportation access.
One need look back only a few months to find a similar example of the federal government dismissing planners’ concerns about too much parking. NCPC initially rejected a plan from the National Institutes of Health last year to add 1,000 new spaces to its Bethesda campus after an NIH official suggested that “high-ranking scientists” couldn’t be expected to ride transit like “regular people.”
Dowd acknowledged that a heavy majority of FBI employees who currently work at the J. Edgar Hoover Building downtown, one of the locations to be consolidated into the new headquarters, ride public transit to work. But Hoover is serviced by every Metro line and dozens of bus and carpool service lines. Dowd said that if the government didn’t plan to accommodate FBI employees driving to any of the new locations it could have adverse effects on the surrounding neighborhoods. He said that is happening around other federal offices already.
“What we did look at is how are people operating, and what we found is people are driving, and they are finding ways to park legally, illegally, in the neighborhoods,” he said.
FBI employees cannot work remotely as easily as employees from less secure agencies, Dowd also told NCPC (though that does not seem to be the case with the Department of Homeland Security).
“The FBI doesn’t have a lot of telecommuting and alternate work schedules that many other government agencies can make use of,” he said. “To do their work, they need to be on site. So we looked at what their requirements were to do their work, so it takes some of the tools out of transportation management planning.”
GSA officials also produced a letter from Metro suggesting GSA initially over-estimated the number of FBI employees who would ride transit. Iannucci did not quibble with the GSA’s efforts but said he came away from their meeting unsatisfied.
“They stuck to their guns and they had data,” he said. “We were left saying this doesn’t make sense to to us.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz