Housing Complex

The Fourth Real Estate

The Washington Post Building

Earlier this summer, before Jeff Bezos was trending in every echo chamber of the District, developers presented the Washington Post with about two dozen options for a new home. The paper had outgrown its 15th Street NW headquarters—or rather, outshrunk it, with the former newsroom staff of more than 1,000 now down to about 640—and needed an office better suited to a 21st-century operation. Publisher Katharine Weymouth said she was hoping for something “a little bit lighter, [with] a little more air”—and “cheap.” The company wanted a building in the 300,000-square-feet range, preferably in D.C. and within walking distance of a Metro station.

That was then. Now that the Amazon founder will buy the Post, splitting it from its parent, The Washington Post Company, the move might look a little different.

First of all, the Post will be a smaller company. Gone are the 115 employees who work directly for the parent company, most of whom are based at the 15th Street building. So too might be some of the support staff in a more digital-focused, Bezos-led effort. If I were one of the 282 mailroom workers listed in the Post Company’s 2012 annual report, I wouldn’t feel too good about my chances of moving with the paper to its new office.

The newsroom alone can’t sustain an entire building—certainly not a 300,000-square-foot one. Arthur Santry III, executive managing director at the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley, speculates that the newsroom might occupy three or four floors of an existing downtown building. Greg Leisch, CEO of the real estate research firm Delta Associates, predicts even fewer, maybe two floors if there are further cuts to the newsroom staff. Add to that the sales, marketing, and legal teams—the Post’s spokeswoman wouldn’t say how much staff that amounts to—and we’re talking maybe half of a typical D.C. office building, if that.

That means the next Washington Post building might not really be the Washington Post building. The paper will probably get some sort of sign to brand its space. But “big-time signage with two-foot by three-foot block letters, you’re not going to see any of that,” says Santry. “If you’re a law firm, are you going to be comfortable being in the Washington Post building? Some people will feel uncomfortable, and that will affect the demand for the building.” (Never mind that several law firms seem perfectly at home in the New York Times building.)

Of course, the paper could have its own building, and for cheap, if it’s willing to distance itself from the city after which it takes its name. After all, the Seattle-based Bezos may not have any particular affinity for high-rent, low-space, height-restricted D.C. And his ambitions for the paper are probably more national than local. Why not move out to Fairfax?

If the paper does stay in the District, Bezos might be attracted to techier spots than staid downtown. Locations the reigning Graham family might not have considered could be on the table—say, the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Congress Heights, where Microsoft (another Seattle bunch, of course) could soon open an “innovation center.”

Santry says that would-be landlords have been making “very, very aggressive” offers to try to lure the Post, dangling “rents that we’d see 20 years ago.” But by selling off its eponymous signature asset, the Post Company might have blown its chance at such a sweetheart deal. Instead, both the paper and its renamed former parent company are likely to be looking at something smaller and less splashy.

Unless, that is, Bezos is in need of a new Amazon distribution center in the D.C. area. Then maybe he’d be so kind as to lease the Post some space—and even slap its name above the door, if he’s feeling generous.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery