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DHS on-track to move Nielsen to ‘substantially complete’ St. Elizabeths office next spring

More than a decade after the Department of Homeland Security first envisioned moving to a consolidated campus east of the Anacostia River, the agency expects to move DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s office to the St. Elizabeths campus this spring.

“The move from the Nebraska Ave. complex to St. Elizabeths will occur in three phases over three consecutive weekends,” starting on March 29 and ending on April 14, DHS spokeswoman Lauren Blakeney confirmed to Federal News Network on Tuesday.

Nielsen’s upcoming move to the pre-Civil War Center Building stands out as a bright spot in the General Services Administration’s largest construction project, which continues to face budget shortfalls and construction delays, as well as its share of skeptics who question whether DHS can still bring all of its component leadership under one roof.

Earlier this month, House committee staff who requested anonymity in order to talk about the project said the Center Building is “substantially complete,” and contractor General Dynamics is finishing its work on the secure IT infrastructure the DHS secretary’s office will need to move into the St. E’s campus.

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General Dynamics did not immediately provide comment for this story about its work on St. E’s.

The St. E’s site now has a central utility plant meant to support 17,000 employees, a security fence around the campus and a network of roads aimed at expanding the traffic capacity in the Congress Heights neighborhood.

“The infrastructure investment has been on that site,” the House committee staffer said.

The campus, which was once supposed to be completed by 2016, remains under construction and already faces challenges keeping pace with its 2021 deadline under the second draft of its master consolidation plan.

GSA and DHS officials told House lawmakers last April they would draft a third master consolidation plan before the end of 2018.

However, it remains unclear whether GSA will meet the deadline, as it’s waiting to see whether Congress will pass a fiscal 2019 spending package before the Dec. 7 continuing resolution deadline.

GSA declined to comment on progress made on the Center Building or the timing of its third draft of the St. E’s master consolidation plan.

Can DHS still make a ‘credible case’ for HQ consolidation?

Aside from the Center Building and the Munro Building, which houses the Coast Guard’s new headquarters, the rest of the project remains a work in progress.

A Senate committee staff member said going back several administrations, there was a “credible case” that setting up a central campus for DHS would yield operational benefits.

But an underfunded FEMA headquarters has pushed back construction plans for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, casting uncertainty on what a final St. E’s campus might look like.

“I don’t think we need to look at it in a binary way — as either we go forward or not,” the Senate staffer said. “I wouldn’t position us or the Senate committee as the ones saying, ‘Let’s look for a way to pull the plug and focus on sunk costs and cut our losses.’ I think we just have to  evaluate where we are, based on what we have.”

The House committee staff member said $100 million of FY 2019 appropriations would go toward FEMA headquarters construction.

Despite that investment, some agency components facing soon-to-expire leases have already made the decision to part ways from the St. E’s project.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, announced in August 2017 it would build a new headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, taking more than 3,000 jobs with it.

Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Information and Technology (OIT) will consolidate 12 of its locations, but in a leased facility in Ashburn, Virginia, according to a GSA press release from May. 

A GSA spokesman clarified following the press release that the CBP OIT office “was never planned to be consolidated at St. Elizabeths.” The CBP headquarters, he added, will still be included in the St. E’s plans.

Shrinking DHS’s leased office footprint

The conference committee version of the FY 2019 general government spending bill gives GSA $100 million for St. E’s construction work. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the DHS funding bill gives the agency $81 million for the project.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that Congress has set aside $1.5 billion for St. E’s between FY 2006 and 2014.

Despite the drawn-out nature of this project, the House committee staff member said lawmakers remain determined to reduce DHS’ leased office footprint.

“If we’re going to have an agency that is going to be around in perpetuity, we need to house them in owned space,” the House staffer said.

However, the staff member added that full funding upfront would’ve eliminated many of the hurdles that DHS and GSA have encountered.

“If I had history to do over again, I think I would’ve went to members and said, ‘You know what, we need to go for all of the funding of St Elizabeths,’ because it’s very clear now that we would’ve saved tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and we might actually have a DHS that operates a little bit more efficiently,” the staff member added.