Coast Guard Moves to New Site as DHS Headquarters Remain in Budget Limbo

Construction on the Saint Elizabeth's site has been ongoing. Construction on the Saint Elizabeth's site has been ongoing. United States Coast Guard

As the U.S. Coast Guard begins moving to its own headquarters – a first in the agency’s 223-year history – a plan to centralize the rest of the Homeland Security Department at the same site remains in budget limbo.

The Coast Guard is the first agency to move to the campus of St. Elizabeths, a 160-year-old psychiatric hospital that now uses only a small fraction of its large Washington grounds. The rest of the site was tapped in 2009 for a $4.5 billion project to create centralized headquarters for Homeland Security, which has not had a base location since the department was created in 2003 from 22 separate agencies.

“This is a major step toward making the vision of one DHS a reality,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said earlier this week at a ribbon-cutting event for the new Coast Guard offices.

But the step forward follows a few steps back. Money for the DHS project was cut the in the last three federal budgets, and the future of the new headquarters depends on fiscal 2014 funding to DHS and the General Services Administration, which is overseeing the renovation, the agencies said.

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini noted that the Senate Appropriations panel has backed President Obama’s full fiscal 2014 budget request, which provides $92.7 million for DHS and $261.5 million for GSA, though it’s still anyone’s guess what the full Congress will agree to. “The ribbon cutting is not a finish line but a starting line,” Tangherlini said at the event on Monday.

There are plenty of economic arguments for the upfront investment, according to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We need the whole DHS team within this site, to save money in coordinating homeland security but also by getting DHS out of long-term leases, which are highly inefficient,” he said.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray called on Congress to provide the funds for the sake of Anacostia, the underdeveloped neighborhood around the site. He said the new Coast Guard building is “part of a renaissance of St. Elizabeths that is fundamentally redefining this part of our city.” As Tangherlini noted, the glass and gray-brick building “is the first federal agency on this side of the [Anacostia] river.”

The Douglas A. Monroe Coast Guard Headquarters Building -- named for a World War II hero who was the Coast Guard Medal of Honor winner -- could house as many as 3,700 employees and 156 programs. Much of its 1.2 million square feet is underground so that glass wings “hug and cascades down the hillside,” as one planner put it. That preserves spectacular views of the Potomac, Reagan-National Airport and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, as well as campus trees that contain a famous eagle’s nest. Five courtyards give employees a nearby outdoor experience.

The roofs are covered in greenery and the structure is expected to earn a certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED credentials.

Planners acknowledge that parking is scarce -- one space for every four employees -- and say shuttle buses will offer rides to two nearby Metro stops. As more DHS components are brought to St. Elizabeths, a planned highway interchange could take pressure off the residential streets and avoid gridlock.

Coast Guard employees currently stationed at L’Enfant Plaza and nearby Buzzards Point will begin the two-week moving process on Thursday. Over the weekend, the service will celebrate its 223rd birthday with at community center in Anacostia.

“We’ve now reached the promised land,” Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr said. “It’s good to be home.”

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