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The boys on the Hill are getting into local real estate; never mind that the D.C. market is softer than GOPAC funding or that it might waste more taxpayer dollars than it saves; there’s political hay to make.

Before taking office, the GOP freshmen vowed to sell a congressional office building as a matter of principle: economy in government. But their symbolic gesture has shrunk and twisted into a silly shell game of imagined economies in government.

Their original target, House Annex II, might have vindicated their rhetorical ploy. But in February 1995, the Republicans’ space czar, Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.) ruled the Ford Building at 2nd and D Sts. SW “too indispensable.” Attention turned to House Annex I, the smaller O’Neill building, an old hotel at New Jersey and C St. SE, now serving as a dorm for House pages and an office annex. The would-be government shrinkers, however, learned not only that the building had structural weaknesses, but that at least $3 million would have to be doled out to build new page quarters over at Ford. So much for divesting the Republicans of the former speaker’s legacy.

Soon the sacrificial “congressional office building” of spring blurred into a plain old “congressional building.” The intended target wilted from the vast, 432,000-square-foot Ford Building to the dinky, 33,000-square-foot structure at 501 1st St. SE: a token “office building” at best, which housed a few employees of the architect of the Capitol, but mostly served as the House day-care center.

The GOP transition team—led by Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa)—boldly targeted the building for sale on the very day that the remains of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City (which also housed a day-care center) were being demolished. Assurances flowed that the 50-odd resident toddlers would be moved from 501 to someplace safe—perhaps the Ford Building or maybe O’Neill. Neither location promised 501’s airy play yard or proximity to open spaces like the neighboring Garfield Park.

Nussle eventually punted the issue to Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.)’s Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on public buildings. Gilchrest toured 501 and called an Oct. 26 hearing involving White, Nussle, Franks, and Capitol Hill neighborhood activists.

Residents leapt to the barricades against the proposed sale, not because they wanted privileged pre-schoolers to keep their prized playground, but because they didn’t want the homeless moving in. The McKinney Act mandates that any executive-branch property sold by the General Services Administration (GSA) be offered as a homeless shelter before it’s opened to public sale. And Hill residents maintain they are already burdened with a disproportionate number of D.C.’s shelters.

Raising “the specter of legions of homeless men on the steps of the nearby Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn House Office Buildings,” Councilmember Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6) urged Congress to respect the District’s zoning and regulatory process.

“This thing is going nowhere,” a homeowning member of Congress reassured a nearby resident at the hearing. “It will end up offices.”

Instead of bypassing the District’s codes, Congress is trying to circumvent the McKinney Act. In November, Gilchrest offered legislation that would allow Congress, rather than GSA, to sell the property directly and avoid the possibility of creating another homeless shelter. The legislation seemingly contradicts the GOP’s Contract With America, which holds that Congress must be subject to laws that apply to others.

“Well, nobody on either side wanted it a homeless shelter,” shrugs Gilchrest’s subcommittee staff director, Rick Barnett. “The congressman has been far too busy with the budget issues to comment on that,” responds the office of Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who originated the sale idea. Comment from Reps. Franks and Nussle is equally unavailable.

En route to a House vote in December, the two-page bill expanded to six. According to Donna Brazile, aide to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Norton held out for three points in the House version: “That there be no disruption in the Congressional child care operation; that the building conform to District zoning and revert to the District tax rolls; and that the transaction result in a profit.”

Whether anyone actually wants to buy the building remains to be determined. The building started out as a squat, styleless World War II nurse’s dorm for old Providence Hospital. Later, the feds converted it into lab space for the Food and Drug Administration. In 1984, the House of Representatives chose it as an emblem for employee day care. (With a capacity of just over 50 kids, the center has had a perpetual waiting list since opening.)

The toddlers didn’t seem to mind the site’s aesthetic challenges. But potential buyers might not be so generous. The drab, utilitarian structure is all too convenient to the noisy, smoke-and-steam-belching Capitol power plant across New Jersey Avenue, and it’s hooked into the congressional power and heating systems, which makes privatization complicated. What’s more, when Congress pulls out, the building will have only six parking spaces—too few for most commercial uses under D.C. zoning.

Conversion to luxury condos or offices can be ruled out, given the vista of the power plant and that nearby office space is going unleased. In addition, marketing and conversion costs could eat up any profit, according to October testimony, even though eliminating the building’s security and maintenance costs would save Congress $300,000 a year. Actually, 501 seems to be well-suited as a day-care center and not much else, but nonetheless, queries from potential buyers have been drifting into the Office of the Architect, to be filed pending passage of the bill.

Circularity haunts the sale. Zoning for either commercial or residential use will be critical to the value of the property, yet Congress is bent on selling its building as an unzoned property. Meanwhile, the District lacks the authority to impose zoning restrictions on a building while it is in federal hands.

So what is 501 worth? Since there’s no assessed value on federally owned buildings, the Office of the Architect hired an appraiser, whom it refuses to identify. “If I said who it was, you might go ask him questions,” stonewalls General Counsel William C. Wimberly. The office also refuses to disclose the appraisal results and how it was conducted. Regardless, Congress enjoys the unique privilege of naming its price.

“It’s not a difficult appraisal assignment, but it’s complicated,” explains Anthony Reynolds, a Capitol Hill appraiser experienced in office building evaluations. With zoning up in the air, “any sale would be contingent on knowing what the use would be,” he explains.

Perhaps the ugly duckling at 501 1st St. SE could burgeon in some investor’s eyes into a swan, but the bill still has to clear the full House and Senate, and the president before Congress can test the market.

The District and the feds have wrestled over this piece of property before. In fact, the brouhaha bubbles on the exact site of the very first showdown between the federal and District governments. In 1791, U.S. planning mogul Pierre L’Enfant decried one Daniel Carroll of Duddington for erecting a mansion in the path of his then-theoretical New Jersey Avenue SE. He ordered Carroll’s house demolished by night.

Portending things to come, the feds didn’t consult the locals. The builder’s uncle, Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek, happened to be a commissioner of the new District of Columbia. Aghast, President Washington canned L’Enfant and ordered the house rebuilt at government expense—but consistent with L’Enfant’s street plan. So Carroll lost and regained his house, while L’Enfant made his point but lost his job.

Will theory balance practicality so neatly at 501 this time around? Not likely. On the record, Nussle praises the “good, old-fashioned common sense” of a sale that can succeed only with the prompt cooperation of the District government. In practice, liaison with the locals works haphazardly. Besides being shut down by the budget fiasco, the District has been left in the dark. “We got nothing from Congress” about the hearings, says Sally Weinbrot, aide to Harold Brazil, who scrambled to testify when alert constituents told him about the panel. When questioned about Mayor Barry’s view of the matter, press aide Susan Yancey had to ask, “Could you fax us a copy?”

No matter what the final sale price is, the GOP frosh will likely claim a profit: Congress acquired 501 by direct transfer from GSA. It’s awfully hard to lose money selling a place you got for free.CP—