A 73-year old archive and records center in Seattle, a former missile site in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and a fisheries science facility built to withstand the strongest earthquakes in California make up only a quarter of the federal properties a panel of experts have recommended for sale.
The Public Buildings Reform Board, a federal advisory committee tasked by Congress to launch what’s been described as a base realignment and closure process for federal civilian agencies, has identified a dozen high-value, excess properties it recommends putting up for expedited sale or disposal by the General Services Administration.
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Since its inaugural meeting in June, the board has had six months to identify at least five federal civilian properties with an aggregate fair market value ranging from $500-750 million to sell through an expedited sale and disposal process.
Board member Angela Styles, a former Office of Management and Budget procurement policy official, said the properties, if sold by GSA, would meet its revenue goal.
The shortlist of valuable properties includes excess land for two Job Corps centers owned by the Labor Department. One site on Sacramento, California sits on 170 acres, but nearly half of that land remains vacant. Another center in Edison, NJ. holds vacant property that’s an hour from New York City.
The Commerce Department owns four acres of coastline property in Pacific Grove, California, which borders Monterey, California.
Former Public Buildings Service Commissioner David Winstead, one of the board’s members, said the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, also nominated for sale, was built to withstand the region’s toughest earthquakes, but only has a single National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher using the 11,000 square-foot facilities.
The site had been targeted for closure by the Obama administration under an effort to consolidate federal real estate.
Also on the chopping block is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Nike Missile Site, nearly 14 acres of property in the heart of Gaithersburg, Maryland. A relic of the Cold War, the former Army installation provided a last line of defense for the nation’s capital against Soviet bomber planes.
At least one board member visited every property on its list, and in some cases, those visits actually led to some properties getting spared from the sale-and-disposal list, after learning what agencies had planned for them.
Talmage Hocker, a board member and founder of a private real estate firm in Lexington, Kentucky, said the board at one point had its sights set on a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Lexington, which was thought to be underutilized real estate.
But in reality, the team learned from VA officials that the agency had begun renovating and opening parts of the facility that had previously been closed. Meanwhile, vacant property the board considered selling was developed as low-income housing for veterans.
For future rounds of property disposal recommendations, the board has looked at drilling deeper into GSA’s Federal Real Property Profile, an expansive snapshot of government properties the agency released to the public in 2017.
However, board member Mary Phillips, a former staff director for a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said agencies often report information differently and often use averages to come up with occupancy rates when pressed for data.
“There’s no consistency about utilization rates. Of course, that has to do with the lack of technology in most of the federal buildings, so you’re not tracking who’s there at any given time,” Phillips said. “But there’s just a lot of opportunity, and there’s inconsistency and inaccuracy in the data. It’s not complete.”
Unlike most agencies, GSA was able to gather real-time occupancy data to make the decision to move about 1,300 employees from the agency’s National Capital Region building to its headquarters building.
Even in cases where agencies had reliable data, Styles said the board had trouble getting access to that information.
In one case, Styles recalled a site visit to an agency call center with a reported occupancy of 500 full-time employees — but saw about 15 employees on-site and only a few cars in the parking lot.
“There’s definitely some push and pull on this utilization issue and how much space the agencies want and what they want to save it to use it for the future and what they think their mission is,” she said.
The board, created under the 2016 Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) will submit its recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget for review and approval. OMB has until Jan. 26 to approve or decline the board’s recommendations.
From there, agencies have a 60-day period to submit their excess property reports to GSA. After accepting those reports, GSA has one year to sell those properties, but the board can ask OMB to extend that deadline by an additional year.
Former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), another one of the board’s members, said the board has continued to press for more accurate information from agencies. But in the meantime, he said the board regularly briefs OMB with updates on its work, and said the agency has kept a close eye on their progress.
“In the beginning, I was beginning to wonder if we were even on their radar screen. But today, my feeling is my trust between our relationship has been built up a great deal … I suspect they’ve been hearing from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, that Congress wants this board to succeed. OMB and [the board] now, I think we’re on the same page and really want to see our work succeed,” Rahall said.
The board doesn’t have oversight of properties owned by the Defense Department, the National Park Service and the Postal Service.