Downtown Detroit.

Downtown Detroit. Andrey Bayda/

GSA Has a Message for Mayors: Let’s Work Together

Administrator Roth wants to align the agency’s operations with the economic development plans of local partners.

The government’s landlord would like to double as your local government’s partner in growth.

The General Services Administration last week launched an Economic Catalyst Initiative “to better align the agency’s building, leasing, and relocation plans with the economic development goals of local communities,” GSA announced.

Fresh from a three-city tour presenting the initiative to mayors, GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth told reporters the approach would “leverage our footprint around the country, support the economic vision of communities while also providing value for our own agencies.”

The initiative is modeled on Roth’s experience as city manager in Greensboro, N.C., a decade ago, when she helped bring together investors and businesses seeking to replace departed textile industry employers with high-tech job creators. Back then, when planners pondered the community’s future development, she noticed the federal grants from Commerce, the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Transportation Department, Roth said. “I thought of the possibility that GSA could have a role as well in placing our agency customers” while factoring in “where cities are trying to take their economies.”

General examples include situating Federal Aviation Administration offices near airports and back-office functions at locations convenient to nearby transportation and retail for employees, Roth said. In April, as acting GSA chief, Roth was present to cut a ribbon after GSA’s move of 1,000 of its employees in Kansas City, Mo., from a site “not near amenities” to underutilized space on a property nearer the train station and a new streetcar route, reducing the agency footprint by 50 percent.

Asked how the approach differs from that of her recent predecessors, Roth said “the bright spots” from GSA’s work in the National Capital Region—the siting of agencies in formerly struggling neighborhoods north of Washington’s Massachusetts Ave. and along its Southwest waterfront—can be repeated strategically around the country. “We’re committed to long-term planning, and to a preference of owning over leases as a consistent approach,” she said, noting that only 16 percent of GSA’s properties are in the District of Columbia region. “Sometimes getting out of the way of developers helps communities too.”

Mayors are less accustomed than people inside the Washington Beltway to receiving planning information “at a collective level,” Roth said. “GSA is committed to maximizing space and consolidating leases, which are stronger if the community knows in advance so it can plan investment of limited resources. There are many win-wins available,” with agency portfolio managers on the lookout for smart locations near central business districts that offer broadband access and transit, in areas that have attracted other federal grants, she said.

Making the Rounds

Roth’s recent tour brought her to Detroit; Charlotte, N.C.; and Cambridge, Mass.

In Detroit, GSA purchased a commercial building for $1 and, with congressional support, plans to invest $70 million in the building, allowing the agency to bring an additional 700-plus federal employees from around the city and surrounding areas to one federally owned location to save money and free up commercial space in the cramped downtown, GSA said.

In Charlotte, GSA is working with the city to exchange a 3.2-acre federally owned site for the Jonas Federal Courthouse, a better long-term federal investment, it said. ”This exchange will be a catalyst for transit-related investments and other investments at the federal level due to the 3.2-acre site’s proximity to a future multimodal transit station supported by the Transportation Department,” according to a statement.

In Cambridge, GSA will exchange the Transportation’s Department’s Volpe Center, which currently sits on a 14-acre underdeveloped federally owned site, for construction services needed to build a new DOT research center that Congress previously declined to fund. “This exchange will unlock the value of the land to meet DOT’s needs, dramatically reduce the agency’s footprint, and free up land in Kendall Square, one of the most valuable real estate markets in the country,” GSA said.

In nearby Chelsea, Mass., GSA awarded a “build-to-suit” lease for an expanded FBI office. “

“The new regional FBI headquarters in Chelsea has already become the flagship for our Urban Renewal District and a catalyst for significant nearby development, including hotels, restaurants and retail,” said Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino. “By selecting Chelsea for this significant public investment, the GSA has helped to transform a formerly blighted area of the city into a thriving commercial district.”

Working with GSA’s 120 leasing specialists nationwide, Roth hopes to increase transparency and improve the timing of decisions to benefit the marketplace, she said. “We’ve met with other mayors, and it is catching hold,” she said. “It’s the new frontier we’re going to be working.”

Dovetailing with the economic catalyst initiative is the ongoing effort—under pressure from Congress—to dispose of unneeded federal properties. GSA has upgraded technology to improve data quality, she said, noting that the chief financial officer must now sign off on buildings inventory data, and the urgency of the issue now has greater visibility at the management level. Five-year agency space consolidation plans required by the Office of Management and Budget are “almost ready, and will give us information we haven’t had in the past,” Roth said, noting that agency plans will be returned if they do not reduce square footage.

GSA must use tact when negotiating with agencies on consolidation and office moves while acting as a partner, and Roth said she isn’t surprised by complaints about GSA’s push for open-office layouts. “To house people is costly,” she said, and the Total Workplace initiative “allows an agency to save costs on space so they can give more money to the mission. Not all will agree,” she said, acknowledging that consolidations, such as the current effort to centralize much of the Homeland Security Department at St. Elizabeths in Southeast Washington, require a “change in expectations.”

The open-space approach “is a different world, creating space for types of work because some people are in the field a lot. At first some think, ‘I’m losing my office,’ and it becomes a change management effort,” Roth said. “As we learn to utilize space, we adapt as well.”

(Image via Andrey Bayda/