When the FBI decamps from its Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters and moves to a new building in Maryland or Virginia, its existing building will probably be torn down and replaced. Last week, officials took the first baby step to make that happen, opening the door to a mixed-use development on the site.

Photo by Travel Aficionado on Flickr.

Pennsylvania Avenue has some of America’s strictest rules governing what can and cannot be built there. When the FBI leaves, it won’t simply be a matter of selling their old building to a developer and seeing what happens. Federal agencies will settle just about everything beforehand.

Quietly at last Thursday’s National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) meeting, federal planners laid out what has to happen to replace the wildly unpopular building.

First, a scrum of federal agencies have to untie a knot of rules that govern the site. Step one is changing Pennsylvania Avenue’s congressionally chartered 1974 master plan.

Right now that plan says the FBI site must be a single federal office building. But Pennsylvania Avenue would be a livelier part of the city if it had a more diverse mix of building types. The other streets around it, E, 9th, and 10th, could do without the current building’s blank walls and literal moat.

So NCPC is proposing to change the plan and allow a developer to split the FBI site into a mix of buildings with both offices and apartments. But there’s a hitch.

The agency that created the plan, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, hasn’t existed since 1996. Its responsibilities have been devolved to the federal General Services Administration, the National Park Service, and NCPC. To change it, those three agencies have to agree on every step.

Once the three agencies can agree on the master plan revisions, they’ll have to develop design guidelines for the property: rules outlining the shape and size of any new buildings.

Almost every property on Pennsylvania Avenue has design guidelines, except the FBI building. It was built before the 1974 plan came into effect, so it never needed them.

Change the plan now to help make a deal

Why start updating the plan now, if the FBI hasn’t even left yet? Because having the design guidelines in place will help the FBI move.

Most news about the FBI has focused on where the new headquarters will go. It’s not well known that the moving deal involves a land swap. In exchange for building a new headquarters somewhere near the Beltway, that developer will get the desirable land the current headquarters occupies on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since any exchange requires a clear understanding of who gets what, officials have to sort out a general idea of what will go on Pennsylvania Avenue before the FBI can move.

Once the new plan is in place, and after the land swap deal goes through, whatever the new owner proposes will still have to go through the usual gauntlet of design review boards. It will still be a tough process. But setting the framework now, with participation of those agencies, makes the deal less risky.

A long-awaited change

People have wanted to introduce a wider variety of uses to the street in a friendlier building since the 70s. Although the officials who built it had the best intentions to save Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI building is widely seen as a mistake. It’s suffered critical and popular disdain since before it was built.

It won’t be saved. Both the federal and DC historic preservation offices have agreed that the current building is not worth preserving. Worse, its concrete is falling apart.

Replacing the FBI Building is a great opportunity to improve one of the city’s most prominent sites and bring a little more life closer to the Mall. It may take some time, but it will be worth it.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.