GSA reimagines federal building cluster near National Mall

GSA Chief Dan Tangherlini GSA Chief Dan Tangherlini Caitlin Fairchild/

A cluster of outdated agency buildings and underdeveloped space just south of the National Mall represents “a once-in-several-lifetimes opportunity to reimagine this part of Washington, D.C,” the acting General Services Administration chief told a crowd of local contractors and developers on Thursday.

In soliciting proposals for public-private partnerships, Dan Tangherlini told the District of Columbia Building Industry Association of the Obama administration’s larger plans to confront new budget-tightening realities by “shrinking the federal footprint and creating more sustainable space.” He spoke as House Republicans continue a two-year-old campaign to pressure GSA to economize and accelerate sale of unneeded federal properties.

“All of us need to recognize that this level of constraint is not going away anytime soon,” Tangherlini said. “At the same time, the public’s demand for services shows no sign of decreasing,” he said. “This need to use our space more efficiently, coupled with the transformational effects of technology on our offices, is changing the way we work.”

The area known as Federal Triangle South includes the Agriculture Department’s now-empty Cotton Annex, which the GSA chief called “a very inefficient use of very valuable space in Washington.” Nearby is the GSA Regional Office Building at 7th and D streets Southwest, which is “inefficient and unattractive space,” he said, noting that “on any given day at least 40 percent of staff is not in the building, as they are teleworking or collaborating” or at meetings off-site. “This space was not constructed with the modern realities of a mobile workplace in mind,” Tangherlini said. “Its old cubicle farms make it the perfect poster child for everyone’s negative stereotypes about what government offices look like.”

Tangherlini also critiqued the Energy Department’s building on Independence Avenue, noting irony in the fact that the facility eats up more energy per square foot than the industry average. Federal Aviation Administration buildings are in better shape than any others in the area, he said, but the $20 million renovation they underwent in 2011 is an example of the kind of investment that is no longer affordable.

Rather than investing in expensive leases, Tangerhlini said, the future lies in replacing outdated spaces with “shared spaces that can accommodate the need for a collaborative, flexible work environment that facilitates cooperation.”

That is the idea behind the current renovation of GSA’s longtime headquarters on F Street Northwest, where the agency hopes to increase office utilization rates from below 50 percent to as high as 80 percent, the administrator said. Many GSA employees are currently in temporary offices on First Street Northeast, and they -- and possibly those now in GSA’s National Capital Regional office -- will be moving to F Street.

In Federal Triangle South, Tangherlini said, “we have an opportunity to reexamine how the federal government uses these buildings and also reassess how this space fits into the surrounding community,” including fomenting economic development. As precedents, he cited the positive impact the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has had on Washington’s NoMa district -- north of Massachusetts Avenue, behind Union Station -- and the Transportation Department’s stimulating effect on the Southeast Waterfront.

“We believe we can both provide for the 21st Century space needs of federal employees and create a place in which people will want to work, live, play, and learn,” he said. “We can replace the cold, sterile, utilitarian, single use enclave with a vibrant, diverse, and special community of its own.”

Tangherlini reviewed other federal properties GSA is trying either to sell or exchange for assets of equal value, including courthouses in Miami and Los Angeles, as well as the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, for which a request for information went out this month.

Also, GSA on Monday announced plans to auction, in January, Washington’s 64-year-old Georgetown West Heating Plant, which has been empty for a decade and which was used as a camera-ready hearing site by House Republicans decrying wasted assets.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, issued a statement on Tuesday calling the auction plan “another step in the right direction to decreasing the federal footprint and reducing our debt. With over 14,000 properties currently listed as unneeded, we have a long way to go. In order to make this process more efficient, cost-effective and transparent, we need to pass the Civilian Property Realignment Act (H.R. 1734) this year as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.”

Tangherlini, responding to questions, acknowledged the impact of the House panel’s series of hearings under the theme “Sitting on our Assets.” After reminding the audience that he arrived at GSA in the wake of a scandal over “unacceptable” spending on conferences by some at GSA, he said his subsequent top-to-bottom review included continuing an existing dialog among GSA managers that his team then “took the opportunity to drive a little harder. The empty Cotton Annex, for example, was “driven wider” to become part of the National Capital Planning Commission’s “Ecodistrict” he said, and GSA “threw in a revamping of its own National Capital Region office “to sweeten the pot.” The Constitution’s congressional oversight function, Tangherlini added, continues to work.

Asked whether GSA staffers stationed temporarily on First Street Northeast were uneasy about moving back to the F Street headquarters where space might be tighter, Tangherlini said there might be some resistance among people who’ve become attached to the F Street site. But the redone headquarters is “exciting for what it represents about use of space,” he said. He hopes “employees will become sales people for this approach and use it to help other agencies.”

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