Patent and Trademark Office and plaza in Alexandria. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Do federal office buildings make their surrounding communities better or worse? Last night, 3 local planning directors discussed how federal buildings can make local areas more lively places to work and live, but how some have had the opposite effect.

The Washington region is unique in the number of federal jobs concentrated in large agencies. These large offices have the power to bring new life into neighborhoods and generate new urban growth around existing transit options. But security concerns can derail their positive effects on neighborhoods.

The key to success for these projects is adaptability. “There’s no formula. Each project is unique,” said Faroll Hamer, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, at the panel, sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.

"The first iteration is almost always horrible,” said Harriet Tregoning, DC’s planning director. Tregoning argued that communities need to be constantly vigilant and to push back through review and input.

An example of a federal building with negative impact is the FBI Building in downtown Washington. When asked if they thought it was “the worst building in DC,” a significant portion of the audience raised their hands. Foreboding and removed from the street, this building serves as an example of what not to do.

On the other hand, the sheer number of workers a new federal office brings into an area can activate the neighborhood. This activity can spur more growth and create new urban fabric where there previously was none. They can give birth to entirely new neighborhoods, or revive ones long since written off.

Qualities of many federal facilities pose problems

Federal office buildings are inherently single-use. Office workers do little for neighborhoods after business hours. This can be especially damaging when agencies cluster, creating large single-use neighborhoods. By spreading offices throughout the region, federal projects can invigorate many different neighborhoods instead of negatively affecting just a handful.

Federal buildings farther from transit often use shuttle buses. These could also provide a desirable transit option for neighborhood residents, but security rules often bar them from riding. This has been part of the conversation around the Department of Homeland Security’s new offices at the former St. Elizabeth’s hospital site between Anacostia and Congress Heights.

Individual buildings can do a lot to help or hurt their neighborhood. The parking garage for the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria is lined with townhouses on two sides, but other sides are just screened and set back from the street with landscaping, creating a dead streetscape. Many projects fall into this same pattern, with a mix of successful and unsuccessful components.


The GSA plans street-level retail in its building thanks to an innovative approach to security. Image from NCPC.


Security drives many design decisions and harms communities

The General Services Administration (GSA) is working to reverse damage to the streetscape from its massive headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The building is currently entirely disconnected from the street, but GSA plans to bring retail back to the building’s street frontage.

To do this, they had to get creative with a factor that hampers the design of many federal projects, security.  Security drives a lot of design decisions for federal projects.


USDOT. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

For example, the US Department of Transportation’s building in the District’s Navy Yard neighborhood takes up two entire city blocks, but has only one retail space along its entire façade, a Starbucks. It brings many workers to the area, but does little for the street.

In urban conditions, security hurts the streetscape by restricting building access from the street and for­bidding retail from lining the outside of buildings. In more suburban conditions it creates large campuses, cut off from what little grid there is and keeping workers from being able to activate the area around them. These large campuses also restrict the ability for planners to attempt to reconnect neighborhoods.

By adapting, many agencies are tackling these issues. The GSA’s headquarters was formerly a Level 5 security building. In its renovation, they created a graduated security system, where not all areas of the buildings require the maximum security. As a result, almost all the security bollards around the building could be removed, a marked improvement to pedestrian conditions.

The lower level of security makes street level retail a possibility, and the GSA is looking into opening the building’s cafeteria to the public, allowing the agency to share this amenity with their neighborhood.

Sustainability goes beyond LEED

Federal buildings built today have more environmentally-friendly design features. This demonstrates leadership and forward thinking from GSA and the agencies, but Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning for Montgomery County, was careful to remind the audience that the greenest building is the one that already exists, and urged federal designers not get too caught up in LEED.

A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards. There are many different factors to take into account to judge a building’s true impact on the environment.

Many federal buildings, like many private buildings, are building more parking spots than they need to. Federal agencies are often surprised by how many workers will choose to commute in ways besides driving. At the Mark Center in Alexandria, offices for the Department of Defense were expected to produce massive gridlock. Instead, 50% of workers utilize transit to get to the site.

Little touches can do a lot


PTO. Photo by Janellie on Flickr.

With creative designs, federal buildings can often make the most out of restrictions out of their control. The PTO’s work in Alexandria requires constant delivery of packages between offices, so the hallways were placed facing the street. This allowed workers to make deliveries by daylight and activate the streetscape. The building could not have retail, but the PTO activated the street in a unique way. 

Small-scale gestures have very positive effects on the areas around government offices. The PTO provides Wi-Fi in a small park adjacent to the offices and installed glass columns that light at night. Despite larger urban design failings, small gestures like these can make a big difference in neighborhoods.

Federal projects have their own strengths and weaknesses, but each gains from the collective knowledge of the projects that have come before. Agencies are generally moving towards better designed buildings, closer to transit, that give workers more flexibility. We will surely witness missteps along the way, but the trajectory for these buildings and the positive change they can bring to the areas is promising.