FEMA officially ‘no longer part’ of move to DHS St. Elizabeths campus

The Department of Homeland Security’s plan to bring the leadership of component agencies under one roof and manage a sprawling network of office buildings in the Washington D.C. metro area has hit another snag.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is looking to stay in its leased office space for up to another 20 years, and expand its square footage by nearly 20%, effectively walking away from plans to relocate its headquarter to the DHS St. Elizabeths campus in Southeast D.C.

In a lease prospectus sent to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this summer, the General Services Administration says FEMA can accommodate its staff more easily and cheaply in leased space, instead of moving to the St. Elizabeths campus, where construction is slated for completion by 2026.

“FEMA is no longer part of the St. Elizabeths campus consolidation plan,” a GSA spokesperson told Federal News Network on Friday.

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Federal News Network first reported last November that FEMA officials scuttled plans to move the agency’s headquarters to St. Elizabeths after Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars for a new headquarters building.

The original master plan for the St. Elizabeths campus called for FEMA relocating its headquarters, along with all other DHS components “directly involved in programmatic functions for mission execution,” GSA wrote in the prospectus. The campus has been under construction for more than a decade.

Originally billed as a way to centralize leadership, improve operations and reduce spending on leased office space, DHS projected in 2014 that the St. E’s campus would shrink its real estate footprint in the national capital region from 50 locations to fewer than 10. DHS occupies more than 7 million square feet in the region.

This plan, however, gave DHS and GSA a narrow window of time to complete construction and move agencies onto the campus. DHS told Congress that 70% of its leases in the national capital region would expire between 2016 and 2020.

So far, Congress has only appropriated about 43% of the money that GSA and DHS has requested for the project, leading to serious delays and several iterations of the final campus plan.

Meanwhile, many of the historic buildings on the campus have suffered more structural damage than what officials expected. GSA submitted a new draft of its master plan earlier this summer that aims to rehabilitate 45 of 62 historic buildings for future project phases, but it will demolish five historic buildings along the campus plateau.

Given these setbacks, GSA said FEMA could operate more easily and at a “significantly lower cost” in its current leased office space.

Agencies slated to occupy the St. Elizabeths campus have “significantly higher tenant improvement costs than FEMA,” GSA wrote, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in specialized building costs to reconfigure space for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection.

The DHS campus is the most ambitious federal building project since the Pentagon. DHS held a ribbon-cutting ceremony last year for the pre-Civil War Center Building, which includes offices for acting Secretary Chad Wolfe.

GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said the final plan for the campus calls for 17,000 DHS employees to work out of the campus. The Coast Guard relocated its headquarters to the campus in 2013.

DHS Undersecretary for Management Randolph “Tex” Alles said in November that the agency was looking at several “long-term leasing options” for FEMA. Those options included keeping FEMA in its leased office space at 400 and 500 C Street SW, or moving agency employees to the GSA-owned National Capital Region Building near L’Enfant Plaza.

The decision to pull the plug on FEMA’s move to St. E’s came after Congress set aside $120 million for the St. E’s campus in the FY 2019 spending bill. That amount fell short of the $171.1 million DHS requested to build a new FEMA headquarters on the campus.

FEMA has occupied once leased building since 2013, and another since 1979. One of these leases expired in August, while the other one expires in January 2021.

“GSA will execute such interim leasing actions as are necessary to ensure continued housing of the tenant agency prior to the effective date of the new lease,” GSA wrote.

FEMA is the latest in a series of DHS components to reconsider a move to St. Elizabeths.

The Transportation Security Administration in August 2017 announced it would move its facilities to Springfield, Virginia, while Citizenship and Immigration Services broke ground in October 2017 on its future headquarters in Camp Springs, Maryland.

The latter construction project would consolidate about 3,000 employees from six different locations around the D.C. metro area.