As the FBI searches for a new headquarters location, most of the options have focused on the suburbs or Poplar Point, but Washingtonian reports on another proposal: Keep it downtown, at H Street and North Capitol Street, NW. But that location has serious downsides.
The proposal would repurpose the existing Government Printing Office buildings on North Capitol Street and add a new extension to the west. The new building would be over 2 million square feet, and would cover multiple blocks from New Jersey Avenue to North Capitol.
Ideally an employer as large as the FBI should have its offices downtown, but the FBI isn’t just any employer. Its building is likely to be a security fortress, which means it won’t be very good for pedestrians, or have ground floor retail. H Street is an important pedestrian and retail spine. Giving up a long stretch of it to the FBI would be just as bad there as it is on E Street, where the FBI is a sidewalk dead zone.
Actually, a dead zone on H Street might be even worse. Walmart is building an urban format store directly across the street from this site. And love Walmart or hate it, it’s going to be one of downtown’s biggest retail draws. That means this exact block of H Street is about to become one of the busiest retail main streets in the city. It should have retail on both sides.
One advantage of this FBI proposal is that the federal government already owns the land. That does mean it’s already less likely to get retail on it, but putting the FBI building on it would cement that, literally.
There are other questions. DDOT’s proposed crosstown streetcar would run along H Street. The FBI has never weighed in on streetcars, but would they throw up security-related roadblocks? It’s unknown.
According to Washingtonian, the FBI would close G Street entirely to traffic, as well as obliterating a block of 1st Street. That further cripples the L’Enfant grid at a time when other projects are trying to restore the grid nearby. And would the FBI forbid pedestrians and cyclists on G Street as well as motor vehicles?
Finally, the existing GPO buildings are among Washington’s most prominent historic red brick buildings, and were designed by a prominent architect at the time. The FBI concept renderings show a courtyard in the middle of the GPO building, but aerials show no such courtyard currently exists. That suggests the buildings will have to be completely gutted to fit the FBI. Is that a worthy tradeoff?
Any proposal that keeps the FBI downtown merits serious consideration, but given the FBI’s security requirements, and given the potential for this location to be redeveloped with something even better, it may be preferable to let the FBI go. Putting the FBI on this block might be better than having it remain a parking lot, but almost any other building would be more ideal.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.