Feds struggle with what to do with costly old, historic buildings

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The government owns thousands of federally-owned, historic structures across the nation.  Maintaining those buildings, however, presents costly problems as diverse as the structures themselves.

Some are being used by the federal government itself.  Some are being rented out or sold to private organizations.  Some are refurbished and structurally sound.  Some are falling down in disrepair.

“Maintaining and making historic buildings functional for contemporary purposes in a constrained budget environment poses a challenge,” warns a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency.

Investigators looked at the General Services Administration, the National Parks Service and the Veterans Affairs Department.  Historic buildings represent between 25 and 30 percent of the agencies’ land holdings.

Take for instance the GSA’s own headquarters in Washington. The agency got stimulus money to refurbish the structure, but ran out of money before the renovations were complete.

The government owns roughly 400,000 structures, thousands of which are considered to be historic.  The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 created the National Register of historic buildings to help preserve America’s architectural heritage.

But government-owned historic buildings are tricky.  Sometimes the demands of historic preservation hinder the needs of the federal agencies.  Agencies are trying to decide which ones they can refurbish to meet their demands, and which ones they need to pass into other’s hands for safekeeping.

“When a federally owned historic building becomes underutilized because it no longer serves mission needs, agencies may sell a building or exchange it for comparable historic property so long as the exchange will ensure the preservation of the historic property,” the GAO said.

The agencies are taking a hard look at what to do with many of their historic structures.  The government recently sold the historic Washington, D.C., Old Post Office building, completed in 1899.  Business mogul and television personality Donald Trump bought it, and is planning to turn it into a hotel.

The VA is facing similar decisions.  Many of its structures are historic hospitals, but the agency is finding they’re no longer suited to the needs of modern medical treatment for veterans.

Meanwhile, in 2011 the GSA reported that one-third of the 1,676 buildings it owns are more than 50 years old and most are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of historic places.

Federal departments have tried to put the buildings to good use, often sharing the space with state and local agencies, non-profits or private businesses.  The GAO took a sample of 30 historic buildings, and found 20 buildings used by the federal government, five used partly by the government and partly by a non-federal organization, four that were being rented out to state and local governments or private businesses, and two that were vacant.

But if the government keeps the buildings, it presents its own set of problems.  Maintenance costs can be high and unpredictable.

“Agencies’ total annual budgets allotted for historic preservation are difficult to determine because funding requested to implement projects to maintain, repair, rehabilitate, and modernize historic buildings is dispersed across multiple budget accounts,” the GAO cationed.

The GSA spent $162 million in Recovery Act funds on the first phase of renovating its 95-year old headquarters in Washington, D.C., but ran out of money to complete the job.

Likewise, the National Parks Service reported that less than 60 percent of its buildings are in good condition, most requiring extensive maintenance.

And the Washington Guardianrecently reported that the cost to refurbish the Cannon Office Building for the House of Representatives is expected to be $550 million.

But there have been success stories too.  The GSA refurbished 500 historic wooden windows in the Milwaukee Federal Building and Courthouse, built in 1899, but was able to install modern insulated glass.  Likewise, at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., the GSA installed an emergency-exit staircase in a “not historically significant” part of the building while preserving the structure’s historic corridors.

“While many federal buildings are historic because of the passage of time and a corresponding recognition of their historical or architectural significance locally or regionally, a smaller subset are treasured assets considered significant to the nation’s history,” the GAO said.

There’s been some discrepency on what government records show as historic.  Take the West Wing of the White House.  Designated a historic place in 1960, one of the main government databases, the Federal Real Property Profile, has it’s status listed as unknown.  Meanwhile that same database shows the National Parks Service as having 1,500 historic landmark buildings in 2011.  But the NPS reported to an architectural advisory council that it only had 177 historic landmark buildings.

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