- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

The District's biggest landlord is the General Services Administration which places federal agencies in the 86 million square feet of offices it owns and leases.
GSA officials concede they haven't always worked well with communities or examined how their projects will mesh with the neighborhood, but that is changing, says Anthony E. Costa, the agency's assistant regional administrator.
In addition to running afoul of community activists over federal development projects, the GSA has worked against itself in some cases, pursuing policies that encourage rent increases, for example.
Now, Mr. Costa and other GSA officials are trying to work more closely with communities. They point to recent property decisions and ongoing planning efforts with the District and private landowners as evidence of this new approach.
At the same time, GSA is adopting other private-sector tactics to cut costs, streamline procurements and strike deals.
The payoff? Mr. Costa says GSA wants the same thing any corporation wants: better relations with the community and a good workplace environment, because that helps retain federal employees.
Question: How has GSA typically handled leasing in the past?
Answer: Historically, to some extent, I think we've cared more about what ended up in our leasing files than … how we did business deals. We've changed that pretty dramatically in the last four to five years. We've been trying to get everything out of our real estate agents' way. We're less worried about extraneous stuff in the files that really doesn't help anyone understand why we made a business decision.
Q: So GSA has not always been community-friendly in its approach?
A: I think GSA is no different from other public sector real estate organizations. Over the last four to five years we've tried to step up and be more cognizant of our effect on the community and how people feel about where they live and where they work, and also get better at working with vendors. We're making a conscious effort now that we want lessors to address how their projects relate to the community, what can they do to make their projects more livable.
Q: What is GSA doing new in the national capital region?
A: DOT (the Department of Transportation headquarters) and Tariff (Building in the 800 block between E and F streets NW) and Square 457 (a development site on 7th Street NW between D and E streets) all three of those have not been done in other parts of the nation. We're groundbreaking on all three of those.
Q: How so? The solicitation, what?
A: DOT, for example. That's a requirement for lease space. We're trying to be a lot more aggressive about incorporating design issues. We actually included a section that says we want you to address how [you] handle livability and put together a package [on] how you would do that.
Q: GSA hasn't done that before?
A: No. The question of how you address the connection of this building to the streetscape, and what kind of public places you would offer. We haven't made it part of the solicitation [before], and that's what is different.
Q: How much has GSA tried to encourage mixed-use development in the past?
A: We haven't.
Q: Because that's something that more and more developers are doing these days. Is GSA just going along with that trend or does it come from some independent motivation?
A: I think we're pushing the envelope because in some cases we can. In Square 457 we could. We just had that flexibility. There is an element of responding to the world and that's actually not a bad thing, for a federal bureaucracy to react to what's going on in the world.
Q: What kinds of feedback are communities looking for? What do they want?
A: Local communities have their own development guidelines. I think what we can add to the mix is to act like any other corporate citizen. It's really important for this building to connect to the community, because our federal employees will want a certain amount of livability, so it's really important to have ground floor retail, or good public spaces because it's going to make them more productive. Now the city, they can't do that through zoning necessarily. The high-tech firms, it matters a lot where they locate because they have to attract employees. We're trying to use some of the same strategies because frankly we have the same issues. We have retention issues.
Q: But communities, how can you help them? Is it historic preservation that they want? Or less traffic?
A: It's all of the above. It depends on where we're talking about. For PTO (the Patent and Trademark Office), for example, traffic in Alexandria is a significant issue. PTO has the highest mass transit use rate in the federal government, which is higher than in the private sector. So from our perspective, having PTO as a corporate tenant is a significant plus. Anyone else would have less mass transit impact, just more cars on the road.
Q: Are there any programs you are setting up, specifically to improve relationships with the community, get your lessors involved with the community?
A: We're doing projects. We're working with the city trying to pull together lots of federal agencies active on the southeast waterfront. We're working closely with the District on planning in that area.
Q: You haven't always done that?
A: Not proactively. One project is public places along Maryland Avenue. We think that corridor needs a lot of help. We're working with the Smithsonian, Metro, CSX and private land owners [to] see if we can make Maryland Avenue a more interesting place to visit, to shop. There are tons of tourists there. There are probably things we can do to encourage more restaurants for tourists. Right now it's not really that active.
Q: How are you trying to signal the brokerage community that you're going to work with them? Is there any sign that people are afraid you're going to throw your weight around in the market?
A: There is, of course. It's hard because in the end I think we should do a little more of that. There are certain submarkets in which we're discovering we need to look where we're leasing space. If the federal government is driving the market and we're the ones creating all the demand this sounds so basic prices are probably increasing because we're competing against ourselves. So maybe we should look at ways not to do that.
Q: How much of this depends on the good economy?
A: The good economy does wonders for this kind of stuff. It does make cooperation easier. If the economy went bad, I don't think we'd abandon it.
Q: I guess this comes down to what is the federal government's role in the city?
A: We're like many other cities that are dominated by the presence of one corporation. It's the seat of government so we have obligations that go beyond a corporate citizen. Are we doing all that we can? I think we're doing a lot, but I don't think we're real organized about it. The District government is looking at how important it is to see what the feds can do for city and to leverage what the federal government can provide. And from the federal government's perspective I know this sounds silly we start to talk to each other about what we're doing for the city, and realize that if we don't talk to each other, we're not doing the city as much good and we can combine our resources.
Q: And that would help the federal government, wouldn't it?
A: Exactly.

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