FBI Headquarters Competition Between Maryland and Virginia Heats Up
The two states line up behind arguments of equity and proximity to land the largest government agency relocation since the CIA moved six decades ago
Maryland and Virginia might literally be making a federal case out of where to put the FBI’s new headquarters.
The long-awaited decision has officials from both states accusing the other of not playing by the rules. What’s at stake is maybe the most significant relocation of a government agency since the CIA opened its headquarters in McLean, Va., more than six decades ago.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation moved into the J. Edgar Hoover building on D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue in 1975. It would outgrow the space by the new century, however, and the building started showing its age. What’s more, fresh security concerns arose in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A search began for a new HQ under the Bush administration and continued under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump nearly canceled the search, but congressional urging put it back on course in 2022. The Hoover Building was literally falling apart.
The General Services Administration (GSA), which manages and leases federal office property, winnowed down more than 30 potential sites in September to a mere three. These included two proposed Maryland sites: a 61-acre plot of land in Greenbelt co-owned by the state and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), and the site of the former Landover Mall, which spans 80 acres owned by an affiliate of Lerner Enterprises. Both are in Prince George’s County. The proposed Virginia site is 58 acres of federally owned land that’s the current site of a GSA warehouse in Fairfax County.
While it’s not immediately clear when the GSA will choose a site, there are reports that it could come as soon as the end of March.
It makes sense that the FBI would want to move out of the city and into one of these D.C. suburbs, Newmark’s Tim Lenahan, an executive managing director who co-heads the firm’s federal investor services group, told Commercial Observer.
“I think [this decision to move] is largely driven by the changing security environment that makes securing the facility like the J. Edgar Hoover building in the middle of Downtown D.C. more challenging today and in a post-9/11 world than when it was initially constructed,” Lenahan said.
Other federal agencies such as the CIA in McLean and the National Security Agency just outside of Laurel, Md., are much easier to secure than the current FBI headquarters due to the sprawling campuses they occupy in their more isolated suburban settings.
It’s also fairly obvious why both Maryland and Virginia are angling for the deal. Nabbing the FBI headquarters would be a big boost to a local economy, but there’s also the prestige that would come with having one of the most famous law enforcement agencies in the world based in either of their states.
“It’s bragging rights,” Terry Clower, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and a professor of public policy, told CO. “There’s only a few of the three-letter agencies that you could mention in any room anywhere in the country and [people] would know who you’re talking about, and the FBI is one of them. The FBI has cachet.”
The White House is asking for $3.5 billion for the project, and a shiny new federal government headquarters could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into a local economy. The FBI would also bring an influx of jobs to whichever of the three proposed locations it chooses — upward of 7,500 jobs potentially.
“[We] rarely talk about being able to have one entity boosting your employment counts by that much. Most of the time, when you have a company coming to town … we’re talking 300, 400 or 500 jobs,” Clower said. “This is by order of magnitude to Amazon.”
What’s even more interesting, he noted, is that due to the nature of their classified work, FBI employees may be less susceptible to the changing patterns of work and therefore occupy their office space more often.
There are some downsides, though. For example, due to being federally owned and operated, the FBI headquarters would not generate any real estate tax revenues for the localities — a much-needed pot of money.
Still, the competition to secure a site has led to some animosity between Virginia and Maryland officials. In recent weeks, delegations from both states have made highly publicized appeals to the GSA and the public explaining why their sites would be the best location for the relocated FBI headquarters.
“[Maryland] is the right choice in terms of timeline and cost. It’s the right choice in terms of transportation,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said in early March, moments after he and a number of other lawmakers met with GSA officials. “It’s the right choice in advancing the FBI’s mission, and it’s the right choice on equity.”
The next day, Virginia officials made their appeal after meeting with the GSA.
“We made the case that the Springfield site best meets the criteria,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia during a press conference. “The most important is compatibility with the mission of the FBI. This is the nation’s security that we’re talking about. That has to be the primary component. And we believe for dozens of reasons the siting of FBI in close proximity to so many sister agencies who have to work together, not in silos, [makes] the Virginia site so strong.”
At the center of the friction are the criteria that the FBI is using to pick its next location, with Virginia focusing on proximity to the FBI Academy in Quantico, and Maryland highlighting the opportunity to bring economic development to a historically marginalized area.
To determine the best site, the agency is using five different criteria, each carrying different weights. At the top of the list is the unclearly defined “FBI mission requirements,” which constitutes 35 percent of the decision-making weight. That’s followed by transportation access at 25 percent, site development flexibility at 15 percent, promoting sustainability and equity at 15 percent, and finally cost at 10 percent.
It’s how these criteria are defined and how much they are weighed in the decision that has led to some controversy. Within the FBI’s criteria, the proximity to the academy in Quantico is included per a GSA fact sheet. Quantico is in Virginia, therefore the site in Springfield is significantly closer to Quantico than either of the two sites in Maryland.
However, the Maryland delegation argues that weighing the site’s distance to Quantico so heavily is unfair. This particular criteria was only added in late 2022, they say, which was years into the decision-making process.
“The first time Quantico was mentioned as a consideration for siting of this building was in 2022,” U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in early March. “I’ve been at this since 2009. … Never was this mentioned as a criteria for where the FBI ought to be sited. [It’s] not transparent because we learned that at the very last minute.”
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland went a step further, asking that the proximity to Quantico be “eliminated” from the FBI’s criteria.
The next day, the Virginia delegation responded. Sen. Kaine noted that the FBI has the right to update its criteria, while fellow Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said the mission of the FBI should be of utmost importance. “It has been stunning to me that some have said maybe the needs of the FBI somehow shouldn’t be considered so highly,” Warner said. “We’re making a 50-year decision for the men and women of the FBI.”
Instead of proximity to Quantico, Maryland officials believe “racial equity” should be weighed more heavily. As noted at the press conference and in a March 7 Washington Post op-ed by Gov. Moore, Prince George’s County is a majority-Black suburb that has historically been less affluent than Fairfax County.
“Each year, the average household income for a Marylander living in Prince George’s County is approximately $40,000 less than that of the average Virginian living across the Potomac River in the Fairfax region,” Moore wrote. “Of the largest 150 counties in the United States, Fairfax County ranks No. 2 in economic mobility, and Prince George’s ranks No. 107. Moving the FBI to Maryland would bring jobs and hope to Prince George’s.”
The delegation also brought up the several executive orders signed by President Joe Biden that focused on equity, while calling on the president directly to weigh in on where to put the new FBI headquarters. In a letter to the president, 12 Maryland lawmakers appealed to Biden by saying this is an “opportunity to right the wrongs of decades of systemic racism and discrimination by our nation’s [marquee] law enforcement agency.” Sen. Warner, while also touting the diversity of Northern Virginia, called this direct appeal to Biden inappropriate.
Clower said this argument about how a federal agency should operate in a more equitable fashion is a valid one. “It certainly comes into play in terms of targeted opportunities and trying to address past wrongs along with certain types of investments and programs,” he said. “But I have not heard that, quite honestly, in terms of the location of a federal agency.”
Currently, the FBI headquarters remains in the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Newmark (NMRK)’s Lenahan noted tht the longer the GSA waits to decide on where to move the bureau, the more challenging the situation will become.
“By waiting, it just increases the … costs of maintaining the J. Edgar Hoover Building,” he said. “There are rising construction costs and shifting and dynamic conditions in financial markets [compared with] when they first contemplated it several years ago. I think for everyone’s sake, it makes a lot of sense for them to be diligent, choose the path forward, and pursue it.”
Until a path is chosen, officials in both Virginia and Maryland will be waiting anxiously to see if it will land in their jurisdiction. Clower did share his prediction on where the new FBI headquarters is headed.
“It will end up in court,” he said.