Two billionaire New York City developers bidding to build a new headquarters for the FBI — maybe the largest government development since the CIA moved to Langley in Northern Virginia in 1961 — have deep ties with President-elect Donald Trump, whose victory injects new intrigue into the jockeying for the more than $2 billion project.
One, Steven Roth, served as an economic adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign and co-owns a building with him in Manhattan. Another, Larry Silverstein, has been referred to by Trump as a “friend of mine.”
Roth and Silverstein have both known Trump for more than 30 years. They have been rivals on some projects and cheerleaders on others.
Trump considered bidding on the FBI project himself before running for the presidency; the current FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue is near his new Washington hotel.
And then there’s this wrinkle: The man who has lobbied hardest for a new campus, FBI Director James B. Comey, had his own role in the presidential campaign in publicly extending the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state less than two weeks before Election Day.
FBI officials are nearing the finish line on a decade-long push for a secure campus in the Washington suburbs. The contract attracted some of the most prominent developers on the East Coast. And the winning development team not only would receive more than $1 billion in federal appropriations to foot the cost of a new campus but also would win control of the current FBI headquarters property, considered a once-in-a-generation development opportunity in downtown Washington.
Trump is the first commercial real estate mogul turned U.S. president. Federal real estate experts say the president does not typically get personally involved in specific projects even of this magnitude, leaving such decisions to contracting officials. It would be unusual for Trump to play a role.
A Trump spokeswoman declined to comment.
Roth is founder and chairman of Vornado Realty Trust, which acquired a mutual stake with Trump in a 2 million-square-foot Manhattan building in 2007 and has partnered in multiple commercial properties with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trump named Roth as an economic advisers on his campaign. During his victory speech after winning the New York presidential primary in April, Trump gestured to Roth from the stage and said he had recently called Roth to congratulate him on one of his projects, 220 Central Park South.
“It’s a tremendous success,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Steve, congratulations on the building.’ He said, ‘Donald, it’s nothing compared to what’s happening with you.'”
Silverstein, who founded his development company in 1957, has developed, owned or managed 40 million square feet of commercial real estate.
Trump proposed building two office towers with Silverstein at the former World Trade Center site four years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, Trump called Silverstein “a great guy, a good guy … a friend of mine” in an interview on MSNBC, though they have also feuded on occasion.
For years, FBI leaders have argued that their current headquarters, the dated J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, falls short of the security and operational needs of a modern crime-fighting agency.
As a precaution, most of the entrances were sealed after the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. The FBI building is in such rough shape that netting hangs on the building’s east facade to prevent pieces of concrete from falling onto the sidewalk.
In response to Republican spending constraints, the Obama administration has proposed an unconventional trade: offer the Hoover site to a builder as a way of helping to pay for a new campus in Greenbelt or Landover in Maryland or in Springfield, Va. The location will be selected at the same time as the developer.
Congress, led by House Republicans, is slated to consider the property swap in coming weeks as part of a $1.7 billion appropriation request for the FBI headquarters from the Obama administration. That is in addition to $390 million that was previously appropriated.
The General Services Administration, which manages federal real estate, is scheduled to choose a development team and campus location in March. The bidding process calls for a panel of government officials with relevant expertise to make the selection.
It would be highly unusual for a president to intervene, said Robert A. Peck, a GSA official who oversaw the Public Buildings Service when Trump was selected for the hotel project.
“The FBI needs a new headquarters, ” he said. “Presumably these guys are pro-law-enforcement and, whatever Comey did, these guys are interested in security, and that’s what they will focus on.”
The GSA has not disclosed the names of a list of approved bidders for the project, but officials and executives say four teams are finalists – those backed by the two New Yorkers and teams headed by Boston Properties of Massachusetts and the Peterson Cos. of Fairfax.
Each is permitted to offer proposals for multiple sites. Officials at those companies declined to comment.
Before running for office, Trump considered pursuing the project. After he won the deal to develop Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion into a luxury hotel in 2013, he told The Washington Post that he and his daughter Ivanka would be “watching the FBI as to what’s going to happen” with the deal.
“When I talked with him, he wanted to talk about the FBI building. That was what was on his mind,” said Dorothy Robyn, a former real estate official at the Pentagon and the GSA, recalling a conversation at the time. “He talked about how he might submit a proposal to be the developer. I didn’t know if it was bluster or not, but he was definitely thinking about it.”
Comey has made his case on Capitol Hill for the headquarters project and keeps a piece of broken concrete from the Hoover building’s facade in his office as a reminder of the need to upgrade.
During the campaign, Comey first drew Trump’s ire for not pursuing criminal charges over Clinton’s use of a private email server. But Trump later praised him when he eschewed Justice Department guidelines in disclosing a new review of her email just over a week before Election Day.
FBI spokeswoman Samantha Shero declined to speculate on Comey’s relationship with the president-elect.
In a statement about the project, she said: “GSA and FBI have made significant progress on the procurement for the FBI’s new Headquarters Consolidation Project. The teams have been working diligently together to meet the expected March date to select an awardee. If Congress provides the resources requested in the President’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, we will be in a position to deliver a secure, consolidated headquarters for the FBI.”
Because the Hoover building is across the street from Trump’s new D.C. hotel, he could benefit financially from its redevelopment. Trump owns about three-quarters of the hotel project personally, but he has said that he will step away from his business interests when he takes office.
“Anything that moves redevelopment quickly could only help the area around it,” said Neil O. Albert, president of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, an association of downtown developers.
Roth supported Trump in the campaign. His firm, Vornado, is bidding in tandem with the JBG Cos. of Chevy Chase (which is also merging with Vornado’s Washington unit). W. Matthew Kelly, who is slated to become chief executive of the new company, said in October that the firms’ FBI proposal was a 50-50 split between Vornado and JBG.
Trump’s history with Silverstein, chairman of Silverstein Properties and one of New York’s most prolific developers, appears to have had its ups and downs.Four years after the 9/11 attacks, Trump proposed building two office towers at the site, where Silverstein owned development rights. He called the Silverstein-backed design for the site “the worst pile of crap architecture I have ever seen in my life.”
Silverstein supported Clinton for president, but the day after the election, speaking at a New York real estate conference, he complimented Trump’s leadership qualities. For the FBI project, Silverstein is bidding in partnership with Lerner Enterprises, headed by Washington Nationals owner Theodore N. Lerner.
Trump “works hard. He is highly focused when he wants to be,” Silverstein said at the conference, according to Commercial Property Executive, a trade publication. “Knowing his determination, his drive, his commitment once he makes it … will propel him to be the best president he can possibly be.”
Robyn, who left the GSA two years ago, said that for the most part the FBI project has been “insulated from politics” and is moving forward.
“The FBI building is a train very, very far down the track,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of momentum and it’s going to happen.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz