Photo by Aude on Wikipedia.

Prince George’s officials are eager to attract the FBI headquarters to a Metro site in the county, and it’s the right place for the FBI. But if they’re going to win out over a competing proposal by Fairfax County, officials need to move quickly and lobby for a single, appropriate site.

On February 9, County Executive Rushern Baker signed a County Council resolution urging the gov­ern­ment to build the new FBI headquarters in the county.

But they’re a bit late to the party. A month earlier, on January 10, Fairfax supervisors unanimously passed a resolution pushing for the FBI to locate on federal land near the Franconia-Springfield Metro station.

The Prince George’s resolution also calls for a task force to study potential sites. That will introduce even more delay at a time when Fairfax is already lobbying for a specific site.

Talk of relocating the FBI has been brewing since at least 2010, when Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) obtained funding for a study on that question. The Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress on November 8, 2011, stating that relocating the FBI headquarters from the J. Edgar Hoover Building in DC to another transit-accessible location in the region was both the cheapest and quickest option to allow the FBI to consolidate its workforce and maintain operational security.

One month later, on December 8, 2011, the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee authorized the General Services Administration to move forward with finding a site for a new FBI headquarters. The committee required that the new headquarters occupy federally-owned land within 2 miles of a Metro station and within 2½ miles of the Capital Beltway, among other requirements.

Within a month, Fairfax made a specific pitch for a specific and highly competitive location that meets the requirements in the Senate EPW Committee’s resolution.

By comparison, Prince George’s resolution is rather amorphous. It provides that the county government has “strong support for relocating the FBI and other Federal agencies and acquiring other Federal leased space in Prince George’s County” and “is prepared to be a partner with the GSA and the private sector in utilizing appropriate economic incentives, to facilitate the location or relocation of Federal agencies to Prince George’s County, Maryland.”

Okay, great. What county government wouldn’t want a huge federal agency, with all its employees, coming to town?

The resolution also highlights that Prince George’s has historically gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to federal employment sites. Though more than 25% of the federal employees in the National Capital region reside in Prince George’s, the county has only 5% of the region’s federal office space. Certainly true enough and worth pointing out.

But exactly where does the county want the facility to go? How would the GSA and the federal government benefit from locating the FBI headquarters in Prince George’s rather than Fairfax or any other neighboring jurisdiction? The county’s apparent answer thus far: we don’t know yet.

The county’s unfocused approach doesn’t prioritize Metro station development

The County Executive’s press release announced the formation of “an inter-agency task force that will regularly meet and analyze possible sites in the County that are in accordance to” the GSA and Senate EPW Committee specifications. That sounds like an excruciatingly long, bureaucratic nightmare of a process, especially given that Fairfax County is already bringing specific proposals to the table.

Time and time again, the ubiquitous “task force” is where many worthy proposals are sent to die a slow and painful death.

Prince George’s formation of such a task force at this late date raises a more significant and troubling question: Why hasn’t the county already done that basic site analysis groundwork if the idea of relocating the FBI’s headquarters has been floating around since 2010?

The answer is simple, and probably best explains why the county doesn’t already have more of its fair share of large employers (federal or otherwise), quality retail destinations, and attractive housing choices around its Metro stations. Despite all of its lofty pronouncements over several administrations, the county simply hasn’t taken enough tangible action to prioritize Metro station development and revitalization of its existing, transit-rich urban core inside the Beltway.

Moreover, as I wrote recently, the county unfortunately often actively undermines its own stated transit-oriented development goals by advancing massive mixed-use projects that are too far away from existing Metro stations, thereby reducing the market for similar development at the Metro stations.

That’s why in 2007, for example, we saw an elaborate master plan being developed for Westphalia, a sprawling greenfield development on rural farmland located outside of the Beltway and far from a Metro station.

Westphalia was the brainchild of former county executives Jack Johnson and Jim Estepp; former District 6 county councilman Samuel Dean; and two corrupt crony developers, Patrick Ricker and Daniel Colton. Johnson, Ricker, and Colton have all now pled guilty to federal corruption and bribery changes and are heading to prison.

Despite the ignominious legacy of corruption and misguided policy that underlies Westphalia, the Baker administration apparently remains committed to bringing the suburban sprawl project to fruition, even while claiming that “one of [its] top priorities will be maximizing the potential at our Metro stations.”  Baker’s spokesperson, Scott Peterson, said in June 2011, “[T]he [Westphalia] development is important to the residents of the community and the county, and we’ll be working hard to keep the project on line.”

At the same time it develops and actively pursues detailed proposals for suburban sprawl developments like Westphalia and Woodmore Towne Center, the county lacks a coherent strategy for developing the four largely vacant Metro stations along its Blue Line corridor (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center), or the three stations along its Orange Line corridor (Cheverly, Landover, and New Carrollton).

Only recently has the county begun to turn its attention to those station areas, with such efforts as the Blue Line Corridor TOD Strategy Implementation Project and the New Carrollton Transit District Development Plan.

Richard Layman aptly captured Prince George’s Metro station TOD dilemma in a comment to a previous post: “[M]ostly, developers won’t be choosing to do speculative development in most of [Prince George’s County], including at Metro stations[,] without superlative station plans and great incentive packages anytime soon.” Richard’s comment rings true both for private developers and for public ones, like the GSA.

County should make detailed proposals for specific Metro sites, and soon

Fortunately for Prince George’s, its past history of poor focus on Metro station TOD does not have to constrain its future course. The Baker administration and the current County Council are much better equipped and, by and large, more willing to embrace and pursue true TOD than Jack Johnson & Crew. But if they’re going to do so, they need to adjust their thinking and sharpen their focus, so that the county’s actions match its policy goals.

The task of identifying suitable space for the FBI headquarters building does not have to be made that difficult and should not entail endless deliberation by an ad hoc task force. The county already has a stated policy that assigns “top priority” to transit-oriented development around Metro stations.

This county policy priority also comports with the GSA requirement for the new FBI headquarters site to be located within 2 miles of a Metro station. So the first decision point in the selection process should be clear: locate and recommend an available site near a Metro station if at all possible.

By my count, there are only 5 Metro stations in Prince George’s County that are within 2½ miles of the Beltway: Branch Avenue, Largo Town Center, Morgan Boulevard, New Carrollton, and Greenbelt.  The goal should be to find a suitable site around one of those 5 stations.  Within a span of a few hours, anyone working with the county’s GIS mapping system and Google Earth should be able to identify which of those 5 locations has the 55 acres of developable or re-developable land the FBI needs.

Matt Johnson argued several weeks ago that putting a high-security fortress like the FBI headquarters directly on top of a Metro station site was not ideal, because such a complex would not be conducive to creating the type of walkable, open, and public environment that should define TOD at a Metro station.

He suggested a couple of alternate greenfield sites near the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, which is about a mile away from the Greenbelt Metro station. However, it appears that one of those sites is not large enough to meet the GSA requirements, and the other site is already committed for another use.

Ideally, the best location for the new FBI building would be in the “secondary area” of a Metro station. In his book The Next American Metropolis, famed architect and urban planner Peter Calthorpe explains that the secondary area of a transit station area is located within a mile of the station, often across a major arterial street.

The secondary area is an appropriate location for uses that should ordinarily not be located in the principal commercial core of a transit area, like lower-density single-family homes, automobile-oriented uses like gas stations and repair shops, and large employment-generating uses that may not fit within the compact, walkable block structure that is essential for proper pedestrian circulation in a TOD—such as a 55-acre FBI headquarters campus that requires a massive security moat around it.

Tomorrow, I’ll suggest the ideal site in Prince George’s County for the FBI headquarters, one that’s large enough, meets the Senate committee’s requirements, and lies within the secondary area of a Metro station.

Bradley Heard is an attorney and citizen activist who resides in the Capitol Heights area of Prince George’s County. A native of Virginia Beach and former longtime Atlanta resident, Brad hopes to encourage high-quality, walkable and bikeable development in the inner Beltway region of Prince George’s County.