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Housing, Yes. FBI, No.

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by Jeff Lemieux

The city of Greenbelt supports the proposed FBI development at the Greenbelt Metro station. Meanwhile, some Greenbelt residents have launched a vocal campaign in opposition to a proposed housing development in Greenbelt.

I now think these priorities should be reversed. Greenbelt should withdraw its support for the FBI complex. Alternatively, I believe we should reconsider supporting new housing development, particularly near Metro and our bus lines. Housing near transit, not the FBI complex, should be our economic development approach.

My opinion about the FBI project has changed. Before the FBI injected itself into the presidential campaign, I was mostly concerned that the project suffered from what I call “giantism” – a tendency to overbuild and overplan, leading to overly large garages, overly wide roads, and just a generally unappealing project. But I presumed that the overall benefits to Greenbelt would be worth the costs.

However, the recent injection of the FBI into partisan presidential politics changes things. This will greatly compromise the agency’s long-run ability to build a new consolidated headquarters in Greenbelt or elsewhere. The letter from Senator Reid demonstrates that the FBI’s legitimacy with Democrats in Congress (and perhaps on juries) has been severely damaged.

If Democrats remain in power, the FBI’s budgetary options – particularly for an expensive headquarters – could be much reduced. Even if the Greenbelt site is eventually selected, I would envision additional delays and budget shortfalls, which would make the new FBI complex more disruptive during construction and less appealing if it were ever finally built.

On the other hand, if the FBI’s new innuendo campaign against Secretary Clinton succeeds in maintaining Republican majorities in Congress and elevating Donald Trump to the presidency, it’s not over-the-top to be concerned that FBI could effectively become the research arm of a new police state.

Neither outcome seems right for Greenbelt. I think adding housing near Metro and along our major bus routes is a better strategy for economic growth in Greenbelt.

Greenbelt city management is in transition. Our city manager and police chief have announced their retirements, and there may be changes in our city planning department. During this generational change in city management, I’d like to propose that Greenbelters also consider changing our approach to economic development.

The Best Case Scenario – The FBI Complex is Built as Designed

Greenbelt’s city management and elected council members have supported building an FBI complex and an associated private development on the Greenbelt metro parking lot (north core) site. The rationale is straightforward: bringing a new large employer to Greenbelt would spur housing and commercial demand in the local area. This would, in turn, increase sales at local businesses, help re-fill currently vacant office buildings, and prop up local housing prices (and property tax assessments).

The hope is that Greenbelt’s tax base would grow, so that the city could afford to deliver the high-quality public services residents have come to expect. This is standard, time-tested economic development theory: bring in jobs and the economic benefits will spill over to surrounding areas. Putting new employment centers at the end of the Metro line would help balance commuting flows, taking better advantage of Metro’s capacity.

However, big developments like the FBI complex are also big long-term bets. The buildings and roads and utilities would be constructed in one big dig and expected to last in their original form for 50 years or more. This is not an incremental development proposal, where we test the market and make mid-course corrections if conditions change. It’s an all or nothing approach, one chance to get it right (or wrong).

I think the specific plans for the FBI complex suffer from what I would call “giant-ism.” The proposed buildings and parking garages are huge. The multi-lane roads would support huge volumes of rush hour car commuters and their geometry is designed so that semi trucks could easily maneuver.

To be fair, the prospective developer has made a strong effort to design the buildings in a way that would be environmentally sensitive, particularly for rainwater control. But giant roadways make places feel sterile and unappealing. Modern developments emphasize walkability and human scale. There’s no guarantee that the private development will succeed – commercial malls and office buildings are failing across the region, and even a prime location at the Greenbelt Metro and next to the FBI headquarters is not a guarantee of a thriving success.

The Big Monkeywrench – FBI Political Involvement

I’m concerned that the FBI director’s recent political shenanigans – editorializing rather than sticking to the facts, and injecting last-minute innuendo into the presidential race – will ultimately hurt the agency’s reputation and its long-run political support.

Injecting a federal agency into the middle of the most hotly disputed and consequential political race in memory will create enormous political ill-will from Democrats. This could cause even longer delays and uncertainty about the agency’s future funding and the plans to move its headquarters. Civil service organizations that get involved in partisan politics will face the consequences in the long run – politicians have very long memories, and in both political parties eventually get control of the purse strings.

Housing, A Better Option for Economic Growth

Unlike some of my neighbors, I’m not reflexively opposed to the new high-rise apartment building proposed near Route 201 and Cherrywood Lane. Of course, I’d prefer that a large new building be located on an empty parking lot someplace, rather than having to cut down forested property. But if the developer were willing to, say, fund the full greenscaping of Cherrywood Lane, or convert a parking lot to an actual park elsewhere in Greenbelt, I’d certainly be willing to listen.

And the Metro site itself would be an excellent choice for new housing. Instead of the FBI, let’s build a parking garage for commuters and convert the current parking expanse into nice new houses and apartments like those in the new Greenbelt Station development south of the Metro. That development is coming in well, even though the trails connecting it to Metro and to Cherrywood lane have been unconscionably delayed.

Some people oppose any new housing in Greenbelt because of the environmental impact. I understand that point of view. We’re a “green” community (except for our huge highways and enormous parking lots) – it’s right there in our name. So I understand general opposition to new development based on environmental concerns, even if I might disagree on a particular proposal.

But I don’t think Greenbelters should oppose new housing due to its impact on property values. Adding housing supply might prevent rents and housing values from rising as much in Greenbelt as they otherwise would. But I’m fine with that. Greenbelt was designed as an affordable housing community, and letting more people live here and take advantage our Greenbelt amenities seems reasonable.

Jeff Lemieux has been a Greenbelt resident for 27 years. These opinions are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of his former colleagues on the Greenbelt’s Advisory Planning Board.

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