How Greenbelt won the FBI’s new headquarters
The agency’s pick for its new headquarters won out over sites in Virginia and Maryland despite being the smallest buildable offering. The choice has sparked some controversy.
Updated at 5:53 p.m.ET
The General Services Administration made its pick for the new FBI headquarters Wednesday, selecting a site in Greenbelt, Md., upending previous expectations the new facility would land in Virginia, and drawing ire from FBI Director Christopher Wray and Virginia lawmakers.
While the selection of the future suburban home of the FBI has been a decade-long pursuit that transcended three presidential administrations, Greenbelt was not initially the Bureau’s first pick and had previously drawn concerns from its Program Management Office over its buildable area.
In an October Justice Department inspector general’s report examining the 2017 decision to cancel a previous relocation plan, one FBI official described the three suburban sites as having “significant warts,” with the PMO then preferring the Landover, Md., site due to engineering, construction and cost reasons.
“The Greenbelt site was located near a Metrorail station, but the FBI was concerned about the site because it was half wetlands and the amount of buildable space was far less than what was anticipated when the site was selected in 2014,” the OIG report said.
There was also a scheduling concern over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s need to replace a parking lot with a garage that had to be completed prior to any construction on a potential FBI building.
Because of those concerns, FBI leaders initially decided in December 2017 to remain at the site of the J. Edgar Hoover building, a move that sparked speculation of political interference by the Trump administration, though the OIG ultimately found no evidence of such interference.
The fiscal 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act later directed GSA to select one of the three suburban sites for a new FBI building, starting the search again.
GSA decided to grade the sites based on five weighted criteria: proximity to mission-related locations, transportation access, site development flexibility and schedule risk, promoting sustainable siting and advancing equity and cost.
By June, there was speculation that the FBI would choose the Springfield, Va., location, given its proximity to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and setting off a round of verbal sparring between Virginia and Maryland officials.
A month later, after holding congressionally directed consultations with Virginia and Maryland delegations, GSA adjusted the weighting of its assessment criteria, reducing the emphasis on proximity to mission-related locations and transportation access and increasing it for promoting sustainable siting and advancing equity and cost.
GSA’s final assessment saw Greenbelt win four of the five assessment categories, ranking last in proximity to mission-related locations. Both Greenbelt and Landover were significantly farther from Quantico and other operationally significant FBI and National Capital Region sites, but Greenbelt had the advantage of being 1/10 of a mile from Metro and Maryland Area Regional Commuter stations.
Despite only offering 11.26 acres of buildable area on a 61-acre site, ranking it as the least advantageous of the sites, Public Buildings Service Commissioner Nina Albert’s assessment determined that GSA could mitigate the site’s constraints.
While Landover’s 31.13 acres and Springfield’s 12.59 acres of buildable space offered the Bureau more expansion options, the former was privately owned and would have to be acquired and the latter was not immediately available for construction because it housed other GSA facilities that would have to be relocated.
The advantage for Greenbelt was that while the land was owned by WMATA and the State of Maryland, both had made a commitment to sell it and construction could begin 33 months after closing the sale, as opposed to 41 months of estimated tenant relocation and site demolition at Springfield.
Springfield also lagged behind Greenbelt and Landover in opportunities for the government to advance equity and improve underserved communities, due to certain socioeconomic and federal spending factors that made the move to Prince George’s County more equitable.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Location Database also predicted that fewer employees would drive to Greenbelt alone than the other two sites and more would be able to commute via mass transit.
And probably most significantly, Greenbelt was far cheaper to establish the new FBI headquarters, with costs to acquire, prepare the site, offsite improvements and additional costs based on expected construction start dates coming in at $26.2 million — compared to Springfield’s $64.1 million and the more than $100 million expected for Landover.
“GSA looks forward to building the FBI a state-of-the-art headquarters campus in Greenbelt to advance their critical mission for years to come,” said GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, in a statement Thursday.
GSA will now work on acquiring the site and submitting a comprehensive project fact sheet to Congress, agency officials said in a statement.
However, a group of Virginia lawmakers are questioning the choice and selection process.
"We are deeply disturbed to learn that a political appointee at the General Services Administration overruled the unanimous recommendation of a three-person panel comprised of career experts from the GSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation concluding that Springfield, Virginia is the site best suited for the new FBI headquarters," said a statement from Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Jen Kiggans, R-Va., Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., and Rob Wittman, R-Va.
"We have repeatedly condemned political interference in the independent, agency-run site selection process for a new FBI headquarters," the statement said. "Any fair weighing of the criteria points to a selection of Virginia. It is clear that this process has been irrevocably undermined and tainted, and this decision must now be reversed."
And in an internal memo obtained by NBC, Christopher Wray, the Bureau's director, raised concerns about "fairness and transparency in the process and GSA’s failure to adhere to its own site selection plan," including, "the appearance of a lack of impartiality by the GSA senior executive given the executive’s previous professional affiliation with the owner of the selected site."
GSA responded to Wray on Thursday, insisting that any "suggestion that there was inappropriate interference is unfounded" and that the selection of Greenbelt "is fully consistent with the decision-making process as well as all laws, regulations, and ethical considerations. We stand behind the process, the decision, and all of the public servants who carefully followed the process and made a good decision on behalf of the FBI and the public.”