Suitland Federal Center. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Talk of the FBI leaving its Pennsylvania Avenue heaquarters reached a fever pitch in the last week, with WMATA taking steps to enable its development partner at the Greenbelt Metro station to bid on the FBI. But a different site might be more fiscally prudent and better contribute to transit-oriented development: the Suitland Federal Center.

I have only seen Suitland, in southern Prince George’s County, mentioned once in the press covering this story (December 18, 2011, in the Baltimore Sun), but I believe it’s the best choice in Prince George’s and the region.

The Suitland Federal Center is a 226-acre site housing the offices of the US Census Bureau, the National Archives’ Washington Records Center, the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility, the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office, and a few other small buildings. There is a contiguous area of just under 55 acres that includes a couple vacant buildings, open land, and underutilized parking lots.

Suitland already has much of what the FBI needs

This space could easily become the new location for the FBI. The entire area is already access controlled via gates and a fenced perimeter. There is room for the standoff distance that the GSA requires for Level 5 facilities (those that are considered critical to national security). The building would need to be long, narrow, and tall in order to fit all the office space necessary to house upwards of 10,000 employees, but luckily, there is already precedent for such a building in Suitland — the Census Bureau’s building.

The 55-acre area that could house the FBI.

Most importantly, the federal government already owns the land. Unlike at Greenbelt, a headquarters building in Suitland will not preclude any more land from future taxable uses. The latest proposals for the Greenbelt property would have GSA pay taxes to Prince George’s County and Greenbelt for the next 20 years, but the land would come off the tax rolls permanently after that point.

Both locations have regional transportation benefits

The city of Greenbelt and Prince George’s County have good reasons to want the FBI at the Greenbelt station. More jobs at this location would mean economic development opportunities for Greenbelt and other nearby cities in northern Prince George’s County, and the oft-cited “reverse-commuting” effect from employees living to the west may help slightly balance traffic on the Capital Beltway, which is heaviest out of Prince George’s County during the morning rush and heaviest into the county during evening rush hour.

The commuting situation would be similar at the Suitland location. The years-long Wilson Bridge project added driving capacity along the southern part of the Beltway, and can arguably handle commuter traffic more efficiently than the northern part of the beltway through Montgomery County and over the American Legion Bridge.

Many FBI workers already drive to and from Virginia. The Bureau has a major facility including its training academy at Quantico. Suitland would offer a shorter trip for people traveling between the two, via the Wilson Bridge by car or bus, or possibly a future rail transit connection.

News reports have also cited a need for a location within 2½ miles of the Beltway. Greenbelt is clearly superior in proximity, as it is directly adjacent to the beltway, but Suitland falls within 2½ miles of the highway. At either location, a new exit for traffic would need to be built. The exit for the Greenbelt station only serves traffic coming from or going to the west, and an exit on the beltway for the Suitland Parkway would probably be necessary to handle higher traffic coming to and from the Suitland Federal Center.

Both locations could take advantage of a Green Line station adjacent to the site, and both are at or near the end of the line, encouraging reverse commuting for those using the transit system from DC and the core of the metro area.

Greenbelt could be so much more, while Suitland never can

The placement of the Suitland metro station, unfortunately, precludes the opportunity for strong transit-oriented development at this location. The station is hemmed in by a freeway to the west and the fenced-off-and-not-open-to-the-public Federal Center to the north and east. The “downtown” crossroads of Suitland (Suitland and Silver Hill Roads) would have been a better location to encourage TOD, but moving the station is extremely unlikely.

Greenbelt, on the other hand, has the opportunity for mixed-use at its station. The area to the south of the station had a development plan that derailed when the real-estate market crashed in the last decade. Eventually, demand for housing, shopping, and jobs at locations inside the beltway will only make Greenbelt an even more attractive place to invest in growth.

I realize that it’s difficult to ask a city to wait, when they can benefit from development today. In the long run, though, the city of Greenbelt has the opportunity to create a plan that will bring jobs, residents, retail, and a tax base to this site. That seems like too good of an opportunity to throw away for the short-term promise of 20 years worth of property taxes from the federal government.

Not Poplar Point, either

Update: Just before this post went live, Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post reported that Mayor Gray will propose keeping the FBI’s headquarters in DC by moving it to Poplar Point in Ward 8.

While that site would have some transportation advantages similar to Greenbelt or Suitland, ultimately, it would be a bad choice for the city. It would preclude the possibility of developing that land in a form that could produce property taxes for DC, and it would cause an even larger stretch of our very limited waterfront property to be forever off-limits to the residents of the city.

It’s an interesting proposal, but ultimately its shortcomings should lead to the idea being scuttled quickly.