Monday, December 25, 2006

The new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters nearing completion at Florida and New York avenues Northeast is shaping up as frustration for terrorists, with blast-resistant features that could withstand most airplane crashes and car bombs.

It is the first building designed with all the high-security features recommended by a government task force after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

“The most unique design characteristics not found in other government office buildings are those one does not readily see, like levels of reinforced construction for security,” said a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, the federal agency that manages the government’s real estate, who asked not to be named.

The GSA says the 1,100 employees assigned to the building will provide an economic boon to a strip of New York Avenue populated by small stores and auto repair shops.

The building is set 100 feet back from the road; a plaza in front is partially ringed by a “curtain wall” of heavy concrete barriers; and the structural walls are so dense that contractors are having difficulty putting in a network of plumbing and telecommunications cables.

The cost of the building was estimated at $119 million in June 2004 when Walsh/Davis Joint Venture won the contract to build it. Modifications for site conditions such as groundwater have escalated the estimate to $138.5 million and have delayed completion by more than eight months.

It is 85 percent completed. The tentative move-in date is Feb. 2.

Government officials declined to give more details of the security design other than to say that although it is the first building to closely follow the Interagency Security Committee Criteria announced in September 2004, there will be others.

“It’s been a challenge for us, but it also puts us on the map as being the first to accomplish this,” said ATF spokeswoman Sheree Mixell. “These are mandates and requirements. We’re definitely not going to be the last.”

Beyond security, the new eight-story, 438,000-square-foot building designed by the Somerville, Mass., architectural firm Moshe Safdie & Associates, is likely to help revitalize the area around the New York Avenue Metrorail station.

Miss Mixel said the ATF sought advice from the city and local developers in the design.

Other real estate developments planned nearby include a Marriott Hotel and 9,000 square feet of retail space.

D.C. Chamber of Commerce officials say the ATF employees could be the bread and butter of the new retailers.

“I think you’ll see new businesses popping up in that area because you now have the population to support them,” said chamber President Barbara Lang. “While you can’t go in to solicit them, the people have to eat. They bring their dry-cleaning with them close to work.”

The design of the new ATF headquarters can trace its origins to the day a truck bomb blew the front off the Murrah building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 persons.

The next day, President Clinton ordered the Justice Department to assess the vulnerability to terrorism of the federal government’s roughly 8,600 buildings nationwide.

The Oklahoma City bombing “forever altered the way the government views security in its buildings,” Joseph Moravec, a former GSA commissioner of public buildings, testified July 27, 2005, before the House Government Reform Committee.

The Justice Department assessment led to formation of the federal government’s Interagency Security Committee, which spent the next nine years putting together specifications for secure buildings.

They were updated after the September 11 terrorist attacks to avoid perils such as fire speeding up “progressive collapse,” in which one floor collapses onto another until the entire building disintegrates in a pile of rubble, similar to the World Trade Center towers.

The ATF building meets Level IV standards under the Interagency Security Committee’s guidelines, which require magnetometers to detect weapons, intrusion detection systems and inaccessible air intakes to avoid poisonous gases.

Level IV would be typical for a law-enforcement federal agency headquarters, GSA officials said. Lower levels of security would be used for field offices or outposts that handle routine administrative tasks, such as the U.S. Conservation Service.

The Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency are rated at the highest category of Level V. Their security designs are unique to each building.

ATF employees will be moving from leased office space at 650 Massachusetts Ave. NW, which has guards at controlled-access entrances but few other security features.

The building comes with controversy after a Justice Department inspector general’s report in October accused the ATF’s former director, Carl J. Truscott, of ordering design changes with “unnecessary amenities” for his own office.

He demanded a private bathroom with television and telephone, a quartzite tile floor and sconce light fixtures for his office walls, the inspector general’s report said.

Since then, the ATF has taken “additional cost-cutting measures,” Miss Mixell said. “There is no phone or television in a private restroom at this point.”

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