Housing Complex

The FBI Building is a Disaster

It's practically useless! (GAO)

The brutalist, 36-year-old J. Edgar Hoover building, which houses the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in an entire block on Pennsylvania Avenue, has long been maligned as downtown D.C.'s ugliest edifice. Demolishing it, though, would be so costly that the federal government hasn't even been able to consider it.

It appears, however, that conditions inside are even worse—so much so, in fact, that the feds are finally pushing towards a solution. A Government Accountability Office report issued yesterday rounds up the studies and assessments done over the last decade, detailing all the reasons why the 2.4 million-square-foot FBI building is "functionally obsolete." Because of a large internal courtyard, deep spaces into which natural light can't penetrate, and excessively long corridors, the "space efficiency ratio" of gross to usable square feet is an abysmal 53 percent. Then there's the $80 million or so in deferred maintenance; the report includes a photo of recycling cans catching water leaking from the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the FBI's staffing needs have grown. The bureau is now spread across 40 buildings, 22 of which are in the National Capital Region, costing $170 million in rent annually. All that fragmentation forces quite a bit of unnecessary travel to and fro, making coordination much more difficult than it should be for the agency that's supposed to keep us all safe. And the FBI's fed up!

"The FBI cannot afford to continue the status quo, from an operational effectiveness or a fiscal stewardship perspective," wrote Associate Deputy Director T.J. Harrington in his response to the report. "A new consolidated FBI headquarters facility is urgently needed and we view this as one of our highest priorities for the foreseeable future."

The question is what to do next. The General Services Administration has reclassified the building as "transitional," meaning that it will do only minimal maintenance while new space alternatives are explored. One thing's for sure: In the current fiscal environment, a full-blown modernization, which would apparently cost $1.7 billion and take 14 years to complete, is probably out of the question. That leaves the option of demolishing the current building and constructing a new one on the current site, which would cost $850 million and take nine years, or consolidating all the FBI's operations at a new location, which would require 50 acres and cost about $1.2 billion.

There's probably no money on the table for any of this until 2014, though—the GSA has been forced to scotch renovations on its own headquarters in D.C.—and the report forecasts that the soonest anything could happen is 2020. Which, in federal government time, isn't actually that bad.

  • DC

    Maybe buying and building on 50 acres in Anacostia or P.G. County or Prince William County could spur development in an underserved area. There's no reason that this facility has to be in downtown Washington.

  • Hillman

    Poplar Point, baby.

    Integrate it with some waterfront retail and housing.

    Everybody wins.

  • Thayer-D

    If the FBI moves, for pete's sake, do it off of a metro line. The concrete remains could be trucked directly south to help shore up the ever receading shore line by the monuments.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    That's the thing - if you have massive security requirements, that makes it impossible to integrate with much of anything, no matter where it is.

  • AlexD

    They are so busy doing what they do that they really need an outside agency to hurry up and design-build a facility for them outside the CBD. If you leave it to them it will never get done because their priorities will always be ant-terror/anti-mob/anti-corrupt wallstreet, you name it. The old building needs to be removed quickly before the historic register pranksters claim it is a monument to the urban uprising periods of the late 60s early 70s and force DC to live with that unforgiving imagery and form for the rest of time.

  • chaz

    I dunno, if the FBI moved out could we not we turn it into a really cool art space?

  • Sarah

    GSA should find the FBI a site to build a modern HQ, not downtown. Just like its namesake, the current building sucks. The J. Edgar site should be sold or leased for private development and the old street grid reopened. Sinced the site fronts on Pa. Ave., outstanding design should be an important part of the tender process.

  • tom veil

    Good report as always, but ... 50 acres?!?! 50 acres?!?! Even the Pentagon is only 28.7 acres. Someone is feeding you nonsense.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    AlexD: Agree, totally.

    tom veil: I don't know, given the extreme, wet-your-pants, "Oh noes!!1! TERRORZ!!!!" point-of-view we get from all the feds these days, I'm sure they honestly believe that they need a few hundred feet of open field around any building. I wouldn't agree with that, but I'm sure that's what the securicrats are thinking.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net/ цarьchitect

    I am a strident defender of brutalism, and I desperately want the FBI building to vanish. It's just bad design.

  • Thayer-D

    As a strident defender of humanism, I too want the building to vanish. The design is so bad, you might even call it brutal.

  • http://ghostsofdc.org Ghosts of DC

    Even though this building is horribly ugly, it would be a terrible idea to knock it down. For better or worse, it's a part of DC and Pennsylvania Ave. history.

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  • http://pacemakerbuildings.com/ Pacemaker

    Though it is poorly set up, it does add to the history. I agree with Ghost's of DC.