Two new agency HQs top list of projects for National Capital Planning Commission

For a review of its of some of the NCPC's recent work, Executive Director Marcel Acosta spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

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Many of us work in it, many more visited, millions pass through it. Yet we often forget that the National Capital Region is filled with resources of historical and cultural importance. That’s why there’s a National Capital Planning Commission. For a review of its of some of its recent work, the NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Acosta, good to have you on.

Marcel Acosta: Thank you so much, Tom. And thank you for the opportunity to discuss the National Capital Planning Commission and our activities.

Tom Temin: I don’t think people realize how much is going on with the NCPC. But I wanted to begin with a couple of specific projects, and then we’ll kind of branch out to some broader issues. But you are involved with a new headquarters for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and what’s the Commission’s role in that particular project?

Marcel Acosta: Well, that’s a very great point to bring up. One of the things that we do as a commission is approve and review federal projects that go out to federal lands. So in this case, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Aecurity headquarters was a project that we looked at last year. And this is a very important agency for the federal government, they have a very important mission that all of us want to ensure happens. One of the biggest issues is that it is on a historic campus. So what are the questions that are commissioned asks, is how well does this project in development and its design integrate with the fabric of this historic campus. This is in fact a National Historic Landmark where the new headquarters is situated. And it is the highest level of landmark status that you can achieve. So what we do with the agency and working with the General Services Administration, which acts as their agent, in this case, as a developer of the project, also, with Department of Homeland Security, which CISA is a part of, we work with them very closely to make sure that the building materials, its location on the campus, the size of it, the height of it all work well within this historic campus. So it goes through a number of different reviews. And we work very closely with them to make sure that they meet their mission requirements. But also they do the best they can in terms of integrating themselves into this campus. So, we’ve worked very hard, very closely with these agencies to ensure that this happens. And I think at the end of the day, it’s a win win. The people who work at the soon headquarters building will have a beautiful facility. And it’s also something that we can all be proud of in terms of a new agency headquarters.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the pictures in your annual report show a stunning building that does seem to be kind of low lying, because it’s at the St. Elizabeths campus. And there’s a historic Civil War Cemetery there and so on. I guess, if they wanted to put up a 50-story glass and steel tower, that probably wouldn’t cut it for the National Capital.

Marcel Acosta: That is absolutely correct. And I think they’re very aware of their role in terms of being a good neighbor on this campus. So again, they looked at what their program needs are, and they had determined that they could fit their program in this more low scale building on the campus. And again, we worked with them very closely to ensure that, that it did fit into this campus quite well and also meets our mission needs. So that, you know, I think you raised a good point, this is situated on a hill, basically adjacent to Washington, D.C. And and you can see it from a variety of standpoints, as you’re kind of moving throughout the region. So we wanted to make sure that it did a good job of respecting its site and location, of the historic nature of the campus.

Tom Temin: And if they want to beam down on the Russian embassy, they’ll have to find some other location to do it from I guess. The other surprise that I saw on the report, I didn’t realize this, that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is moving out of 14th Street where it’s been since forever – I mean, as a child, I remember visiting it and, and maybe getting a crisp new $2 bill – to another county.

Marcel Acosta: Yes, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is moving to Prince George’s County. And their current location, as you said, is in downtown D.C. Part of it is that they needed a new facility to kind of meet the needs of the 21st century. It was basically older technology in the building. And they needed a new currency production plant, it’s basically a manufacturing plant, where they make coins and other currency in a location that had the new machinery, had the state of the art technology that would ensure that they could stay in business for the next, over the series of next decade. So they are moving out to Prince George’s County, actually at the Beltsville agriculture campus, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And so we’re working very closely with them again to ensure that number one, it kind of respects the more rural nature of the campus, that there is good accessibility for a transportation standpoint and also does it, it’s able to perform its mission the best way that it could.

Tom Temin: Plus it has to accommodate visitors because that’s a popular spot.

Marcel Acosta: Yeah. So that’s one of the things there’s so going through the process of review right now. So that’s one of the things that we’ll be looking at, in successive reviews this upcoming year. Yes, but it also has that function, too.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Marcel Acosta. He’s executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission. Interesting, and I guess the implication, too, is that the National Capital Area is much more than the central core of Washington, D.C, then, isn’t it?

Marcel Acosta: Yes, it is. I think most of us tend to think of the Mall, the federal headquarters of the White House, the Capitol being just where most of the federal activity occurs. But we do see a lot of activity out of the region, I think you just raised the Bureau of Engraving and Printing facility, but there are military installations such as Fort Belvoir. Several of our most important federal scientific campuses, like the National Institutes of Health are in Montgomery County. So we have a number of very important mission critical federal agencies that are situated both in Virginia and in Maryland, that all comprise the National Capital Region. So our agency looks in reviews projects, and not only in Washington, D.C, and you tend to think of this facility and museums, for instance, or new memorials as things that the National Capital Planning Commission reviews, but we do review a number of very important federal installations and facilities throughout this region.

Tom Temin: Just one more detail I wanted to ask you about, and that is the Pennsylvania Avenue initiative, bringing us back downtown here.

Marcel Acosta: Yes, that is something that we’re very excited about. We have been working very closely with the District of Columbia, as well as our federal stakeholders, including the National Park Service and the General Services Administration, on ways of kind of looking at ways of revitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue, which is one of the country’s most symbolic spaces, and one of its most important streets. And we tend to think of it as a place where we have an inauguration every four years. But it’s so much more than that. And to a great extent, people should be looking at the street the same way they look at the National Mall, that this is a place where we can stage significant events. We do see rallies and protests and marches today. But it could also be a place where we celebrate what’s important to our country, on the street. And it’s actually in a process of change. Over time, it’s become less important in terms of our transportation network, as a street, but we see it more as a venue for these very important activities to occur. So I think that’s its future, it’s going to not only just be a street, but a place, we’re going to see much more activity occur in terms of large events, you’re also going to see it become much more of a public space. And we’re going to start thinking of it more in terms of the by a major park and major plaza in our nation’s capital as opposed to a street that carries cars. And so I think as the downtown evolves and changes over time, I think Pennsylvania Avenue is going to play a more significant role in terms of what downtown means in terms of visitors and tourists, and to our local population.

Tom Temin: You know, at one time on Pennsylvania Avenue, there was a shoe repair shop that you could walk in and get your shoes repaired right on the spot. I think it’s probably been 40 years since that place was there, so that’s not old D.C. anymore, is it with Sholl’s Cafeteria and shoe repair shops, right on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Marcel Acosta: You’ll still see a little bit of that on Pennsylvania Avenue, because there’s always a need to kind of serve the day-to-day population that’s there. But I think the the larger issue for Pennsylvania Avenue is that, how does it fit into the life of the city? And that we could do much more to make it an engaging place and a destination for not only the nation as a whole, but for people who live and work in the National Capital Region. And so festivals, large celebratory events, things that we care about as a nation are things that we could consider being staged on this very important, beautiful place. And so it is our hope that we see a transformation of this place from the street to a public space that we could be very proud of.

Tom Temin: All the more important for the city to get that intersection at New York Avenue, Florida Avenue and First Street NE fixed because it’s going to probably get more traffic than it gets now. You didn’t have any role in that particular project, did you?

Marcel Acosta: Not a direct role in that but I think one of the things that the city does every day is look at kind of what the future is in terms of traffic congestion and where to make strategic improvements to our infrastructure and our street. Granted, that obviously is a place, regardless of Pennsylvania Avenue, that needs a lot of attention.

Tom Temin: I wanted to ask you about the general process for the planning commission, the National Capital Planning Commission. When you have a project somewhere, whether it’s Prince George’s County or in the core of D.C., besides the federal agency involved, and the Commission, a lot of people can weigh in, can’t they, to say, well, I want this walkway this way, or I want that sightline that way. And how do you get anything done? Because this is a city where everybody feels they can weigh in. And they’re not shy about going to court if they don’t like what they get.

Marcel Acosta: That’s a very good point, I think one of the great things about working at the National Capital Planning Commission is that you have the opportunity to engage with the public and talk about how a particular project or plan might affect their community. And so some of our most important federal agencies are hosted in neighborhoods. For instance, we talked a bit about the Department of Homeland Security, that is in the neighborhood of Anacostia, on the east side of Washington, D.C. So it is very important that people have the opportunity to speak up, talk about the issues that might come up with respect from ranging from traffic and parking, to environmental impacts, historic preservation issues, things that they might care about it. To a great extent our process, because it is iterative, that people come in at a very, very early stage of the applicant to show us kind of what they’re thinking about, the public has an opportunity to review that and comment on that. And over time, that project gets better. And because it incorporates input from the public, and from other federal agencies, and from the city that hosts that particular installation or federal agency, and then over time, all those issues are addressed. And so yeah, it does take time. And sometimes they seem overwhelming. But at the end of the day, we’re able to resolve even the most contentious issues that might be there. But I think part of it is that we are open to that sort of conversation with the public. And I think to a great extent over the 100 years of our agency being around, I think we’ve developed a lot of credibility and respect from the community and from the local jurisdictions in terms of ensuring that their issues are addressed.

Tom Temin: And sometimes after something controversial or difficult is finally installed, I’m thinking of the World War II Memorial, a couple years later people can’t imagine life without it. It’s like it’s always been there in some ways. And an even so there is always constant improvement. And you’ve got something being installed soon in that particular circle that’s going to improve it a little bit.

Marcel Acosta: Yes, I think you’re speaking about the National Prayer Plaque, which was President Roosevelt’s prayer right before the invasion of Normandy. And so over time many – you can look at it in terms of memorials, but buildings change and their missions change over time. So, we’re always looking at making adjustments and modifications, sometimes to memorials, more often in terms of buildings and campuses. That’s what planning is about. It’s about managing change, and ensuring that we do the right thing that best meets the needs of the agency involved, but also meets the needs of the greater public. And so that’s what planners do, as part of our perfection is that we ensure that happens in the best way possible.

Tom Temin: And looking at some of the priorities for the Commission, as listed in the latest report, too, you mentioned the issue of equity, diversity and so forth. How does that come to bear on on these public spaces? And what are your planning in that regard?

Marcel Acosta: One of the most exciting things that the National Capital Planning Commission as well as our partners the Trust for the National Mall and the National Park Service is a new initiative called Beyond Granite. In Washington, D.C., on the Mall and then in our monumental core of the city we do tell stories about our history, about what’s important to this nation in terms of events. And we do that in terms of memorials, and monuments. It is very difficult. It is a very long process to get a permanent memorial installed in Washington, D.C. And there are millions and millions of different stories that could be told. And so what we want to do is to allow that opportunity to occur, perhaps more on a temporary basis. But we want to offer the opportunity for sponsors, the public, people in various communities to tell these stories and to make sure that they’re represented in our nation’s capitol. So what we are looking at in terms of over the next two to half years, is a demonstration program where we will install eight to 10 temporary commemorative works, that could be memorials, monuments, public art, that tell different stories about our nation, and we’re inviting the public and different groups out there to perhaps send us their proposal and we will go through a process to illustrate that maybe over a six month period you can also tell your story in the Capitol. And that over time, we will be able to tell even more stories in that fashion. Because to a great extent, we’ll run out of land for permanent memorials and I think yet the demand is much greater than the supply that’s out there in terms of land. So this will give us the opportunity to do that and have more representation, and more equity in that storytelling. In terms of the public.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Marcel Acosta, he’s executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission. And sometimes wildcards might come along that are really not initiated by the Commission. And I’m thinking of, do you have your antenna out, at least at this point, for what might happen if you listen to all the talk about the relocation once again, of the football team for Washington that now called the Commanders. And I think most fans would like to see it back in D.C., but that that would probably invoke the Commission as well, wouldn’t it?

Marcel Acosta: If it went on federal land, if perhaps if it was rebuilt at the current site of RFK Stadium, since that is still a National Park Service, still under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, but if it goes on to private property in Virginia, or Maryland, or even on private property of the district, it is very unlikely because our jurisdiction is only on federal land that we, that our commission would have a role of that review of a new stadium.

Tom Temin: So a little bit early to start thinking about it in detail. But somehow, I have a feeling there would be a lot of parties involved in having a say in what happens there.

Marcel Acosta: Almost certainly, yes. I think there’s a great amount of interest out there in terms of where the new, where the football team may go in the future. So, but it is still very early in the process.

Tom Temin: Alright, anything else we should know about what you guys are thinking about? Because, again, this is a place where people live work impinge. It’s internationally a destination and so it’s critically important what the Commission decides and helps decide.

Marcel Acosta: Yes, I think you raised a very good point. I think right now, because of the pandemic, we may see big changes in terms of how the federal workforce acts, in terms of whether we go back to work full time in our offices, is there going to be a hybrid work environment? Are most of us going to be teleworking? And I think one of the big questions and this may be a once-in-a-generation sort of question is that how is this going to profoundly impact our region? It may impact the way we move throughout the region in terms of what is the impact of this mass transit. If we are teleworking, the federal workforce is teleworking downtown, what does it be to the livelihood of downtown D.C., for instance? So I think there are a great number of questions out there that we’re looking at what the our sister federal agencies, as well as the local jurisdictions. And I think that will be the big planning question that all of us will be addressing over the coming years. And this doesn’t only deal with the federal workforce, but kind of the workforce in general. And it’s gonna be profound, I think. And so that’s what are the big things that all of us have been thinking through. I also believe you mentioned our annual report, and we invite the public to take a look at our 2021 National Capital Planning Commission year in review, and you can find that on our website. And we hope you take a look.

Tom Temin: And we’ll link it at our website when we post this interview. Marcel Acosta is executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission. Thanks so much for joining me.

Marcel Acosta: Thank you.

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