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An extended version of this post ran in the April 28, 2011 issue.

About a year and a half ago, President Barack Obama signed a breathtakingly ambitious executive order on sustainability in federal operations, with targets for reduced energy use, water efficiency, waste diversion, and more. For the D.C. area, though, perhaps the most important element was its directive for the Council on Environmental Quality to craft policies regarding location:

The recommendations shall be consistent with principles of sustainable development including prioritizing central business district and rural town center locations, prioritizing sites well served by transit, including site design elements that ensure safe and convenient pedestrian access, consideration of transit access and proximity to housing affordable to a wide range of federal employees, adaptive reuse or renovation of buildings, avoidance of development of sensitive land resources, and evaluation of parking management strategies.

Sounds great! Very LEED-ND, in fact. The problem, of course, is that such locations can be more expensive—and a government under immense pressure to cut costs looks at every penny in extra rent as a potential dealbreaker. That tension was on display at a panel yesterday put on by the National Capital Planning Commission about integrating federal facilities within their communities. The timing was prescient: As we sat, Virginia was threatening to sue over a flawed 2008 study that put 6,400 workers in a site with no public transit at all, which has created horrific traffic problems on I-395. Arlington County Boardmember and smart growth champion Jay Fisette called it “the number one decision that screwed up the region in terms of transportation.”

Bob Peck, commissioner of public buildings for the General Services Administration, wouldn’t defend that decision, which was made before his time. But he did explain that transit-served locations were “by definition” more expensive, and that GSA was bound by rent caps in this region as well as belt-tightening Republicans.

Right now, there are a couple solicitations for federal space floating around the region. The major one, over a million square feet for the Department of Homeland Security, is looking for a metro-served location. But there’s an additional cost complication: StonebridgeCarras principal Doug Firstenburg pointed out that in D.C.’s urban core, like the candidate at Poplar Point, the GSA caps rents at $49 per square foot, in Maryland at $34 and Virginia at $38. If market rates at metro stations exceed those caps, too bad.*

Fisette insists rents shouldn’t be the determining factor (which serves his purposes as well—Arlington’s rents are approaching D.C.’s now). There are other sustainability concerns—like employee health, development around federal office complexes, and the cost of pollution—that make transit-oriented locations better financial propositions in the long term.

“It’s a great executive order. It’s just, somebody has to do it,” Fisette says. “What is sprawl? Sprawl is following a cheaper piece of land. Are we going to rely on the private sector to change that philosophy and pull this country in the right direction? If the federal government can’t look long term, and look at the overall total cost, not just the land cost, then who can? That is the role of the federal government, to think of those externalities.”

And the only way they can do that is planning way, way in advance. “The only thing you can do in three or four years is build a road,” Firstenburg observers. (Though as Coalition for Smarter Growth moderator Cheryl Cort would point out, there are plenty of ready-to-go sites around the 15 underutilized metro stations in Prince George’s County.)


* Corrected to reflect rent caps, not average prices.