Open Office Space at Heart of Plan to Further Cut Costs of DHS Headquarters Move

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the move will help improve faltering morale at the Homeland Security Department. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the move will help improve faltering morale at the Homeland Security Department. Susan Walsh/AP file photo

As budget talks with Congress near, the Obama administration is seeking to jump-start the stalled plan to consolidate the Homeland Security Department’s key offices on the St. Elizabeths campus, submitting a scaled-back strategy that seeks savings through open office space.

The General Services Administration on Thursday unveiled an “enhanced plan” to reduce desks, square footage per person and leased space to save $800 million in construction costs and $1.2 billion over 30 years.

For nearly a decade, DHS has been planning consolidation in Southeast Washington of the secretary, deputy secretary, and other headquarters and component offices currently spread out to 50 locations. The project on the historically protected site is about halfway complete, with only the Coast Guard fully moved in. It has generated some criticism from lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office for cost overruns that ballooned the estimate from $3.4 billion to $4.5 billion, and delayed the projected completion date from 2016 to 2026.

"The Enhanced Plan takes a smart investment in underutilized federal space and makes it even better,” said GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth. “Incorporating the latest space planning and technology solutions, GSA and DHS will be able to cut costs, reduce square footage, and deliver this project faster…..In keeping with the Obama administration's reduce the footprint policy, the consolidation will allow us to cut the federal footprint by 1.8 million square feet and completely reverse DHS' leased-to-owned ratio.”

GSA argued that a cash infusion in the current budget would “get us closer to the finish line,” and that a deeper commitment to GSA’s telecommuting and shared-work station-based Total Workplace Strategies would accelerate the project’s completion by five years

Some planned amenities would be eliminated, among them a hair salon, a dry cleaner and a tech resource center, GSA confirmed.

To drop the overall cost from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion, the new design would house 17,000 employees rather than the previously planned 14,000. It would house them at 12,800 work stations rather than 14,000. It would reduce usable square feet per person from to 230 square feet to 155. The effect would be to consolidate 60 percent of DHS rather than 45 percent, spread around to only six to nine locations. Because ownership of space is generally considered more cost-effective than commercial leasing, the plan saves money by raising federal ownership of DHS-assigned properties from the current 30 percent to 80 percent.

GSA will expects to file the enhanced plan as an amendment to its St. Elizabeths consolidation master plan, a move that requires approval by the National Capital Planning Commission.

Several lawmakers stepped forward to lend their support. “Consolidating the Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths gets at the heart of our two main goals on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: to protect our nation’s security and ensure everything we do in government is done in a fiscally responsible way,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. He added that the move would improve employee morale at a department that has been ranking poorly in that measure.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who sits on the Appropriations panel, said, "Construction on the DHS headquarters has been hobbled year after year because of dysfunction in Congress. It's time for Congress to provide DHS and GSA with consistent direction and oversight that will enable a commonsense plan to move forward, get the project back on track and bring down the cost.”

Weighing in against the new plan was Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a longtime critic of GSA real property management. “I’m going to work to do everything I can do to make sure they do not proceed with this project,” he told Government Executive. “I believe we should look at beginning to dismantle DHS, which, as currently constructed, is building a Taj Mahal.”

Though GSA and his colleagues are talking about saving money, Mica said, “what they’re doing by co-locating security operations is creating a Washington, D.C., Pearl Harbor. Why bring all that together in the first place?” he asked. “There’s plenty of surplus federal property around Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. It was a mistake to consolidate 22 agencies and more than 200,000 employees to begin with. To spend that money now is irresponsible.”

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