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