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FBI Building May Soon Be 'Put Out Of Its Misery'

Apr 5, 2013
Originally published on April 5, 2013 6:04 pm

The nation's capital has been undergoing something of a building boom. Dozens of construction cranes dot the Washington, D.C., skyline.

So it comes as no surprise that the federal government is hoping to take advantage of the real estate values and unload what's seen by many as an eyesore on Pennsylvania Avenue: the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI.

The Hoover building sits on a valuable piece of real estate: Pennsylvania Avenue is where the inaugural parade is held every four years; the Capitol building looms just up the street; and the White House is not far away in the other direction.

Tourists used to visit by the thousands each day, but the tours stopped after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now the building — never much to look at in its prime — has fallen into a state of disrepair.

"If you look at the sides and the tower on top of the building, you'll see there's netting on the facades of the tower because the concrete's been chipping away," says Catesby Leigh, an architecture critic.

Leigh is no fan of the FBI building or its design — the exposed concrete style called Brutalism.

"This building reflects the tendency within Brutalism to completely ignore the building's surroundings, and it's just plopped down as if it dropped in from outer space," he says. "Also, you have a moat running around three sides of the building, which just intensifies its forbidding aspect. ... There's a very large consensus that the sooner it's put out of its misery, the better."

The FBI essentially agrees with Leigh, calling the Hoover building, completed in 1974, "obsolete, inefficient and expensive." And — despite the moat — it doesn't meet modern security standards.

The bureau says because of its growth after the Sept. 11 attacks, half of the staff doesn't even fit in the Hoover building. So it rents other space around Washington at a cost of $168 million a year.

The agency that oversees government buildings and properties, the General Services Administration, says it's time to think about a move.

"We believe the Pennsylvania Avenue site has considerable potential for higher and better use than as a headquarters of a federal agency," the GSA's Dorothy Robyn testified at a recent congressional hearing. "We hope to unlock that hidden value and apply it to the creation of a new facility."

The GSA has received 35 proposals to sell the Pennsylvania Avenue site to developers and use the proceeds to build the FBI a new headquarters. Officials from Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs are jockeying for the headquarters and the 11,000 jobs it would bring.

Advocates of suburban locales say they can provide sites better suited to the security needs of the FBI. Washington's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, says there is no need to move the FBI out of the capital — there are secure sites in D.C. as well.

"We are in the process of building ... the Department of Homeland Security. That is going to be a complex of secure agencies that are now spread all over the region," she says. "So if your concern, or the concern of some, is security — you need to move on."

The government is just beginning to review proposals, and it will be a few years before the FBI will be able to move. Still, it appears that the days of the J. Edgar Hoover Building are numbered.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Washington, D.C., is experiencing a building boom. Dozens of construction cranes dot the capital skyline. And now, the federal government hopes to take advantage of real estate values and unload what is seen by many as an eyesore on Pennsylvania Avenue - the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI. NPR's Brian Naylor has that story.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The FBI headquarters sits on a valuable piece of real estate. Pennsylvania Avenue is where the inaugural parade is held every four years. From the sidewalk in front, the Capitol building looms just up the street. The White House isn't far away in the other direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED VIDEO

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: These visitors, thousands each day, they're waiting to tour the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, national headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

NAYLOR: Sadly, the tours ended after 9/11 and now the building, never much to look at in its prime, has fallen, literally, into a state of disrepair.

CATESBY LEIGH: If you look at the sides and the tower on top of the building, you'll see there's netting on the facades of the tower because the concrete's been chipping away.

NAYLOR: Catesby Leigh is an architecture critic, and no fan of the FBI building or its design - the exposed concrete style called Brutalism.

LEIGH: This building reflects the tendency within Brutalism to completely ignore the building's surroundings. And it's just plopped down as if it dropped in from outer space. Also, you have a moat running around three sides of the building, which just intensifies its forbidding aspect. There's a very large consensus that the sooner it's put out of its misery, the better.

NAYLOR: The FBI, essentially, agrees with Leigh, calling the Hoover building - completed in 1974 - obsolete, inefficient and expensive. Nor, despite the moat, does it meet modern security standards. The agency that oversees government buildings and properties, the General Services Administration - or GSA - says it's time to think about a move. Dorothy Robyn testified at a recent congressional hearing.

DOROTHY ROBYN: We believe the Pennsylvania Avenue site has considerable potential for higher and better use than as a headquarters of a federal agency. We hope to unlock that hidden value, and apply it to the creation of a new facility.

NAYLOR: The GSA has received 35 proposals to sell the Pennsylvania Avenue site to developers, and use the proceeds to build the FBI a new headquarters. Officials from Washington, and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, are jockeying for the headquarters and the 11,000 jobs it would bring.

Advocates of suburban locales say they can provide sites better suited to the security needs of the FBI. Washington, D.C.'s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, says there's no need to move the FBI out of the capita. There are secure sites in D.C. as well.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: We are in the process of building the Department of Homeland Security. That is going to be a complex of secure agencies that are now spread all over the region. So if your concern - or it's the concern of some - is security, you need to move on.

NAYLOR: The government is just beginning to review proposals, and it will be a few years before the FBI will be able to move. Still, it appears that the days of the J. Edgar Hoover Building are numbered.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.