How not to build a federal building

Jimmy Carter once called the U.S. tax code a disgrace to the human race. The 10-year effort to build a federal office building on a vacant piece of land comes close.

The Homeland Security Department screens millions of airport passengers daily. It patrols thousands of miles of the border. It operates ships and aircraft the world over. Just this year, it responded to a half dozen major disasters with thousands of people.

Yet building an office has confounded it for a decade. As our reporter Meredith Somers has detailed, the effort to erect a consolidated DHS headquarters has spanned three presidents and five secretaries. So far.

I’ve been following this project from the beginning. I walked through the St. Elizabeths “center building” with long-ago GSA Administrator Lurita Doan. Back then, the hospital was intact. Boy, was it spooky in there. I brought a recorder to capture the sound of Doan’s high heels echoing in the corridors. We poked around the ruins, including the cell that once held Ezra Pound.

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Now St. E’s is just a shell, its original outer walls barely standing, its innards totally removed. An aerial photo shows the outlines of the 19th-century hospital. Frankly, it’s hard to see how that shape would make sense for a complex, 21st-century bureaucracy. I’m all for historic preservation, but this looks like a stretch. I’d turn it into a dormitory for visiting trainees and build a proper headquarters.

The government can do this when it wants.

To wit: Construction of the Pentagon took 15 months from groundbreaking to dedication. Maybe that’s because Army Col. Leslie Groves was in charge. He’s the guy who as a one-star general would oversee the Manhattan Project. By all accounts, Groves knew how to get the proverbial message to Garcia.

The government sometimes takes lessons from the private sector. Well, another Manhattan project also took 13 months from start to ribbon-cutting. That would be the Empire State Building.

The DHS headquarters project differs from those others in one important respect. The Pentagon had the urgency of a world war and a more-or-less unanimous government. Congress has never fully bought into the DHS project. Homeland Security leadership has been too preoccupied with arguably more important issues. Certainly more politically potent. Given the historic site, the conditions there, and the complexity of the project, the General Services Administration bit off more than it could chew.

Fundamentally, DHS has a good case for a consolidated headquarters. As Meredith reported, at one point, DHS occupied more than 50 offices in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Leadership now squeezes into an old Navy facility. No amount of video conferencing can replace the human interactions necessary to run a place like DHS. All the more so because of how far-flung its operating components are.

Here’s a more recent example of what’s possible: The Department of Housing and Urban Development was signed into law in late 1965. By autumn of 1968, employees began moving into its brand-new headquarters.

But that’s the exception.

More likely, DHS will continue to mirror the FBI tale. Fifteen years passed between congressional approval of FBI’s current headquarters until the last few employees moved in. That was in 1977. It didn’t take long for the building’s shortcomings to surface. After 40 years in that heap, the FBI’s new headquarters dream resembles that of Homeland Security. A 10-year site search, on-and-off funding, crabby Congress, cancellation, limbo.

These arguments and delays date back to the construction of the Capitol in the 18th century. But you’d think the powers-that-be would’ve learned a thing or two.