National Science Foundation nears decision on moving

"Welcome to the new home of the National Science Foundation."

That greeting, posted briefly on a banner last month at the Victory Center office complex in Alexandria, Va., was jumping the gun. But officials have confirmed that NSF is pondering a move out of its headquarters in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.

As reported this week in Northern Virginia-based ARLnow.com, the 2,100-employee agency requires space to grow its staff of scientists and grant makers, who have bumped up against a rent cap that the Office of Management and Budget has declined to raise.

According to Kerry Donley, vice mayor of the nearby City of Alexandria, officials from the General Services Administration and NSF accompanied him to four prospective sites in Alexandria in May, all of which met the criteria of being close to Metro. "My understanding is that the GSA will go through a quick process, cutting about 20 possible sites down to, say, 10 by midfall, then reduce it to two or three and make a decision by the end of the year," Donley told Government Executive.

NSF officials will not discuss particulars. Said media officer Maria Zacharias: "Our lease is up in 2013, and will be competed to get the best value for the government and taxpayer."

Donley cited Alexandria's success a decade ago in luring the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from Arlington's Crystal City to a new office complex near Metro. NSF officials told him their current space is constrained and short on conference rooms. "It would be a tremendous benefit, a wonderful entity for Alexandria," Donley said.

According to coverage this spring in Washington Business Journal citing a GSA prospectus, NSF requires an increase from 556,466 square feet to 690,000 square feet, and is unable to build out on its current site because of OMB's denial of a waiver on exceeding the federal rent cap.

If a move is made, it won't be without input from Capitol Hill. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., this April released a report attacking NSF for allegedly wasteful spending. He mentioned its "pricey rent."

"NSF's headquarters in Arlington…currently costs taxpayers $39 per square foot, or $26 million annually," the report said. "NSF's lease is expiring in two years and the agency is currently making plans to lease or construct an entire new building -- requesting $45 million in 2012 just to customize and [make] technology enhancements to their future headquarters . . . According to documents, among the reasons NSF is looking to move from its Ballston . . . headquarters is the desire to become more environmentally friendly and create a larger lobby and space for a museum and an auditorium."

Early in the discussion, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Virginia's Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb opposed any move. "We urge you to take into account recent developments that we believe continue to make Arlington the ideal location for NSF headquarters," they said in a February 2010 letter to GSA, citing benefits from being nearby the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency and Virginia Tech's technology center.

"Arlington County is a national epicenter for scientific research, particularly in the areas of defense and homeland security," the letter stated. "Not only does [Ballston] provide these agencies with access to one of the most highly educated and highly trained workforces in the nation, it also provides them with immediate access to a large pool of technical experts in the contracting community as well."

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