Photo by kalavinka on Flickr.

The FBI’s home in downtown Washington is falling apart and not even able to house all central office employees. Keeping the headquarters on the same site doesn’t work well for the bureau or for DC. But building a new campus for at a suburban Metro stop is not the answer, either.

The Washington Post’s editorial board argues for a Prince George’s station site like Greenbelt for a new FBI campus.

We do need to increase the amount of development around our suburban Metro stations, especially those in Prince George’s County, which have long been left fallow. The federal government can be a great partner for bringing in offices and investment in these areas, but high-security fortresses for agencies like the FBI do not accomplish this.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters adjacent to the Silver Spring Metro is an excellent example of a positive federal presence in a walkable area. The NOAA buildings relate well to the street and to a plaza at the Metro stop. During lunchtime, workers patronize nearby restaurants and retail. Some likely even live within walking distance.

In DC, the new USDOT headquarters also serves as a good neighbor. Public plazas with exhibits provide open space, a Metro entrance is located just across the street, and the new office building may help catalyze new development in the Navy Yard area.

But not all federal offices are appropriate for station sites — especially if they’re designed poorly.

The FBI is concerned about security, and rightly so. When they build a new headquarters, it will very likely be on a secure campus. That kind of design does not fit well into the city, and for the same reason is not appropriate for a suburban Metro station site.

Greenbelt has been bandied about as a potential site for the FBI’s next home. The Metro station is home to over 4,000 surface parking spaces, and has no commercial development within walking distance. Prince George’s County is currently working on a sector plan to help shape development at the site.

It is my hope, and the hope of many in northern Prince George’s that redevelopment there bring homes, jobs, and retail. And a federal tenant could be an excellent anchor and catalyst, if done right. But a federal fortress is the wrong kind of development.

We need our station areas to be walkable, mixed-use places. In Prince George’s those kind of spaces are sorely lacking.

The Post editorial board does get it right when they say that the FBI no longer needs to be located downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue. Moats, by their very nature are street-deadening, even more so than a blank wall. And the Hoover Building’s approach to urbanism is certainly medieval.

But the editorial is wrong to suggest a Metro station. There are few Metro station sites large enough for an FBI campus anywhere in the region except for in Prince George’s. But that’s because the other jurisdictions have largely built urban centers and walkable areas around theirs. What Prince George’s needs is to build some transit-oriented walkable spaces, not a federal complex that will take one station off the market for urbanism forever.

The federal center at Suitland is a perfect example. The Census Bureau employs around 10,000 people at offices adjacent to the Suitland station. But the fortress-like design contributes nothing to the community, and has failed to spark transit-oriented development.

This is likely because the Suitland complex was designed with everything federal workers need inside. A dining room, fitness center, and day care facility are for workers, who only need to leave the building at quitting time. They don’t need to patronize local businesses, and the walled compound in which the complex sits makes walking anywhere less than ideal.

The FBI is probably unwilling to build the kind of federal office site that is necessary to creating a better urban place. And if they can’t fit their complex into that kind of place, it doesn’t need to be built on top of Metro.

It is important, though, to keep federal jobs accessible to transit. A secure FBI complex may be the exact opposite of a walkable node, but workers still need to get there. I think a site that is close to transit, but not adjacent would be a better location.

In the case of Greenbelt, there’s a site near the Federal Courthouse on Cherrywood Lane that could be suitable. It’s within easy cycling distance of the Greenbelt Metro/MARC station and has multiple bus lines serving it. A shuttle bus could easily provide frequent service.

Image from Google Maps.

County Executive Baker is right to be calling for more federal offices in Prince George’s. He’s also right to be pushing transit-oriented development at the county’s Metro and MARC stations. But Prince George’s must get it right this time. We cannot afford to turn the Greenbelt station site into another Suitland.

When federal tenants come to Prince George’s, they need to breathe life into the communities they’re joining. The best way for that to happen is to build a fine-grained (public) street grid, with a mix of uses.

If the FBI comes to Prince George’s, there’s plenty of land for them. But we shouldn’t waste our valuable and scarce transit-accessible areas on federal fortresses.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.