Housing Complex

An FBI HQ by Union Station? We’d Regret It in the Long Run.

Not what we need near Union Station.


Washingtonian reports that among the 35 proposals submitted to the federal government to relocate the FBI from its Pennsylvania Avenue NW headquarters was one from Republic Properties to keep the agency downtown by moving it near Union Station. Republic Properties confirms the report of a proposed site between North Capitol Street, H Street, and New Jersey and Massachusetts avenues NW, on what's currently a Government Printing Office parking lot.

This is something of a surprise, to say the least. Suburban members of Congress have been fighting for the rights to the FBI as part of a swap with the federal government; Prince George's County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia are considered the likeliest candidates. Meanwhile, D.C. pitched its own site, at Poplar Point on the Anacostia River. There's been no mention of the Union Station-area site.

It's got some advantages: Many FBI employees would surely like to stay downtown, it's near a Metro station, and there's not a whole lot else going on there right now, so the opportunity cost is low. For now. In the long run, the location would have some serious drawbacks.

The problem with an FBI building is that it has to meet Level 5 security requirements, which means deep setbacks from the street and probably precludes ground-floor retail. That's why the current J. Edgar Hoover Building is such a drag on Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW: It takes a huge chunk of potentially vibrant space out of a pedestrian-filled area and devotes it to, essentially, a concrete bunker. The new building, then, should go someplace where it won't interfere with other potential street-livening development.

The proposed location near Union Station would appear to meet that criterion. Except that would be a very short-sighted view. As Greater Greater Washington points out, a Walmart store will be opening right across the street, and it'll be the most "urban" of the six stores the chain will be bringing to the District, attracting shoppers on foot or by bike or transit.

I'll add to that that the plans for an overhaul of Union Station involve covering the tracks and putting the Hopscotch Bridge—currently an unpleasant place for pedestrians—on grade with the new development at Burnham Place. In other words, the idea is to connect H Street NE, which is currently vibrant but cut off from the Northwest quadrant, with H Street NW in such a way that it feels natural to walk between the two. The stretch of H Street just west of North Capitol, then, could become an attractive spot for businesses and diners and shoppers. Unless, of course, we put a concrete bunker there.

It's an intriguing proposal, but I'm afraid I'll have to stick with my earlier advice: Let the G-men go.

Update: Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says the city is standing by its choice of Poplar Point as the best District location for a new FBI headquarters. Ribeiro wouldn't say whether the city specifically considered that site, saying, "We looked at a lot of different places." He adds, "The criteria given to us by [the General Services Administration] pretty much pointed to Poplar Point for us."

Update II: Republic CEO Steven Grigg explains why he thinks this is the best site for the FBI. "Our first belief is that the FBI should stay in D.C.," he says. "Our second principle is that the building needs to satisfy the requirements of the FBI. Grigg notes that the site is centrally located and federally owned. He says the proposal doesn't get down to specifics like whether there could be ground-floor retail, and he declines to say whether it includes a swap for and reuse of the Hoover Building.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Bac

    Along with other pro-development writers (such as the obligatorily quoted GGW), this writer favors moving the FBI the hell out of Washington. This is such a short-sighted position.

    "It takes a huge chunk of potentially vibrant space out of a pedestrian-filled area and devotes it to, essentially, a concrete bunker. The new building, then, should go someplace where it won't interfere with other potential street-livening development."

    What about the development the FBI brings?

    Why not ship the Capitol building out? Or the White House?

    Has the writer seen the area near Union Station now? It's hardly thriving, commercially speaking. It meets the needs (barely) for what's there now, but it's not commercial.

    Of course you want to let the G men go. You haven't got a clue.

  • http://leftforledroit.com Left for LeDroit


    what development will the FBI bring? A few contractors will rent out a small amount of office space across the street so their top project executives can easily interact with FBI managers. The rest of the contract staff will probably be out in Virginia anyway since the office rent is cheaper. This is an all-too-common set up in DC; put the top people downtown, ship the back-office workers to New Carrollton, Fairfax, Arlington, etc.

  • DCB

    @LeftforLeDroit The Washingtonian article on the Union Station area proposal says that the building will house 11,000 workers. If that's accurate, that's a lot of people to support restaurants, shops, and even residences in the area. I'm not as sanguine about letting the FBI HQ go to the suburbs.

  • Kevin

    Echoing Left for LeDroit, what does the FBI do for the city (better than alternative uses for the same amount of space)?

    Any FBI HQ will be, by definition, not pedestrian friendly; have intense security; won't pay taxes; and will not provide retail. Poplar Point would be OK but I don't think the feds will go for it -- the amount of acreage being offered is too small.

    Bac, your "ship out" the Capitol or White House comments don't even work as a weak analogy.

    Let the G-men go. It's the best move for them and the city.

  • George

    Interesting proposal!

    Great points about why the city should discourage that site, but I wonder if GSA/FBI will care about that?

    On the other hand, it looks to me like the city owns a lot of that parking lot land.

    That site looks to be about 9-10 acres too, so if that's a problem for Poplar Point, it could be a problem here too.

  • Bac

    Go ahead and move things out (since you don't like ship out) of the capital. See if that, long term, brings development or not. It's attrition that it will bring. But I get it: you want short-term gains.

    Do not let the G men go. It's horrible for the city.

  • Maryann

    As a former employee of the FBI, I, along with numerous co-workers, made many trips to D.C. to attend meetings, inservices, training, etc. at FBIHQ. We stayed at downtown hotels, ate at downtown restaurants, rode the metro, shopped in the area, and visited various local tourist attractions. The current employees take the metro and eat at local restaurants. There is easy access to both the airport and Union Station. Aside from the money that will be lost to local merchants, the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for increased transportation costs for those on business trips to and from the airport and/or train station for travels to outlying areas. The Union Station sounds like a good one to me.

  • Bac

    Thank you Maryann. The business of Washington is politics and government.

  • NewUrbanist

    Not to be rude, but who needs the FBI in downtown DC? You'd just be putting into prime real estate several thousand conservative gumshoes who just want to drive in from the far 'burbs and are too cheap to do anything more than brown-bag their lunches. The rest are just clerical workers. They are not going to frequent hip new restaurants for lunch or wine and jazz bars after the office. The FBI is not the creative, upscale urbanist class that DC wants to attract and retain if we are to grow into a denser, more vibrant city.

  • JM

    @NewUrbanist - does one have to be an asshole to join the "creative, upscale urbanist class"? Just asking...

  • Bac

    New Urbanist though you started sweetly, your post illustrates how high priced real estate kills all attempts at community in Washington.

    For example, a restaurant must be "upscale," not "good."

  • Hillman

    NewUrbanist speaks for many in DC.

    And he stereotypes with the best of them.

    No one in the FBI is creative? Really?

    Just being a worker isn't good enough. You have to be hip and frequent overpriced wine bars.

    If not DC doesn't want you.

    I'd take MaryAnn over NewUrbanist as a neighbor any day.

  • George

    @ NewUrbanist, so your idea of economic development is to attract the upper class and drive out the poor with high rents, instead of attracting good jobs for the people who already live in a place. Brilliant!

  • Hillman

    I miss the old Housing Complex. Back then we were presented with facts first.

    Now we get everything filtered through a very narrow world view.

    And not so great writing.

  • Bob See

    "I miss the old Housing Complex."
    I don't. The new Housing Complex™ is awesomer.
    "Back then we were presented with facts first."
    What facts are missing here?

    I'm fine with it. This will infill an OMG surface parking lot (a Fed one that DC can't otherwise do anything about) and add a ton of employees to the area to support retail. Isn't that a basic new-urbanism ideal?

  • Potowmack

    Arguing that FBI employees are the "wrong" kind of people for DC is stupid and narrow-minded. That type of attitude is unfortunately too prevalent among certain new urbanists who are way too self-absorbed to realize that not everyone in the District is under-30, single and childless.

    The problem with FBI headquarters is, due to the demands of the Federal government's obsession with security theatre, it will create an urban dead zone wherever it is build. No ground floor retail, significant setbacks, closed streets and little or no emphasis on pedestrian and bike access. Additionally, there wouldn't be much tax revenue coming from the building.

    I don't have anything against the FBI or its employees, but what they're looking for in a headquarters is incompatible with the direction that development in DC is heading. It's not surprising that DC government is lukewarm, at best, to keeping FBI headquarters in DC.

  • Hillman


    My point is the old Housing Complex presented facts and let us decide.

    The new Housing Complex seems to write with a point of view already determined.

    Like the "we'd end up regretting it" headline for this story.

    Sortof hits you over the head with an opinion instead of just presenting the pro and con.

  • DC res

    Ordinarily, I'd agree with the idea that this isn't a good idea across from the new Walmart. However, the GPO has been trying to move out and/or redevelop this space for YEARS, but can't get the Hill to agree. As long as the Architect of the Capitol and the folks on the Committee that oversees the GPO keeps eyeing the parcel for more Congressional offices (which would have their own security-conscious, street-life deadening impact, there will be NO development here. The historic building is lovely and must be kept, but, given its design, it would be very difficult to put retail on the ground floor, and unless there is a use like the FBI here, it will continue to be a really dead, surface parking lot. Several thousand people working here, along with Burnham Place when it is built, the I-395 Air Rights Development and the Walmart/residential development across H Street, could transform this part of H Street.

  • Bac

    Hillman I disagree with you on Lydia vs Aaron. Lydia was just more artful than Aaron in her craven support for any and all development. Neither know much about scale and proportion and design.

    They are both young people who couldn't see that far into the future and want their needs met instantly, in line with a lot of new (new meaning, now, in last 7 years or so) bloggers. If they have families, those concerns seem to be secondary to new condos. They show hardly any concerns for those on modest incomes. And also little to none for the historic design of our historic city.

  • D

    I know I'm late to post here, but I agree with Bac. Aaron, I understand that you think you're looking big picture, but you're really taking a narrow view of this. 11,000 jobs is a lot for the city to lose and unless we plan on becoming an enclave for the independently wealthy who don't need a job, it is not good practice from an urbanist standpoint to encourage their move to the burbs. Your failure to imagine that a new FBI building might better interact with a newly vibrant part of DC (even with the building's security requirements) is striking. The misleading caption to the picture accompanying this story shows an unwillingness to even try. And your assumption that all FBI employees live in the burbs is lazy. Even if just 10% live in DC, that's still over 1,000 good paying jobs that might reconsider where they live if the FBI were to move out to Fairfax or some other far-flung burb.

  • D

    That final point should have been in response to a previous commenter, not the original post.

  • Calvin H. Gurley

    The vision is to have the Federal Government relocate the FBI headquarters on the Walter Reed Hospital Campus.

    Let's stop beating our heads against the Georgia Avenue wall and allow the Federal Government to establish, fund and invest into our Georgia Avenue corridor. To be wise is to allow others to invest their funds/money into businesses and allow the community to sit back, relax- direct and influence the outcome along Georgia Avenue.

    I see a continual Georgia Avenue stroll of retail, restaurant venues that will join up to the Silver Spring -City Place scene. The Discovery building was the anchor that revitalized the City Place image. Wisely enough, we need the FBI's 3,000 plus staff and employees to bring their desires and needs for eateries, restaurants, hotels and evening entertainment to the Georgia Avenue corridor.

    We should not be foolish to believe that a gated high-end residence of million dollar homes can compete financially with the buying power of 3,000 plus federal government employees who have circulated their money in downtown Verizon Center/China Town.

    Downtown will take a great financial hit--while Ward 4 can witness Clyde's, Legal Sea Food and other restaurants follow their financial base to the Walter Reed Hospital area of Georgia Avenue, N.W.

    I will Guarantee it!

    As soon as the GSA mention their intent to house the FBI building at the Walter Reed Campus "Downtown" businesses will be swiping up locations along the Georgia Avenue corridor to offer their services for the 3,000 plus relocated federal government patrons. It is just great and sound business sense that can't be argued and can be found in any business plan.

    In my opinion "the thrill is gone" with the many restaurants in and around City Place- Ray's Steak, Macaroni Grill, Austin Grill, the Red Lobster and Jackie's down the avenue. To far a walk from the Walter Reed campus for the FBI employee.

    The Second Jewel--Increase Security for Shepherd Park and Takoma.
    The FBI Uniform Police will have a high presence in both Shepherd Park and the Takoma community. Police will especially patrol the route from the Takoma Metro Subway Station to the new FBI building on the Walter Reed Campus. FBI patrol will be 24 hours.

    I don't care who takes credit for relocating the FBI building to the Walter Reed Campus--just don't wait until Mayor Gray suddenly wakes up to show some interest and then see our golden opportunity being handed to Virginia or Maryland.

    Our council woman [Muriel Bowser] and U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton should be strongly campaigning for this relocation -- not only to help her [Bowser's] ambitions but to leave a legacy that would have her finger print on it. That is what I would do if I were the Councilmember for Ward 4.

    Calvin H . Gurley

  • Arlingtron

    Send the G men to Quantico. They have an academy there and the HQ can be safely tucked into the woods. Not being in downtown DC makes the city less of a target. If there is a big attack (or crippling perceived attack like a kid leaving a backpack on the Metro) then the FBI can function safely from outside the beltway. VRE trains can go to Quantico if people choose to commute without cars.