Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Get Out of Town

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 10, 2005 --  

The mile long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue leading from the Capitol to the White House hosts a series of majestic buildings befitting the capital of the most powerful nation in the world. But not all structures on the Avenue fit this description. Halfway along this stretch, an unadorned concrete behemoth fills an entire city block, its blank street-level fa?ade and 70-plus-foot setback1 mocking the very notion of an open society.

It should come as no surprise that this building -- the FBI headquarters -- is designed for security. Originally planned to include a street-level arcade of cafes and shops, the wartime concerns of the Vietnam era led J. Edgar Hoover to kill the idea of an active streetscape long before the 1974 occupation of the building.2 The result is a bunker-like dead zone in the middle of the city's main street -- a terrible idea, but one that was way ahead of its time.

30 years later, concerns about terrorism make the FBI building the envy of agencies across the city. A variety of regulations now require new and existing federal buildings to be set back from the street to secure against a truck bomb. In the 1995 Oklahoma City attack, the truck bomb was detonated only 10 feet from the building.3 Larger truck bombs have been terrifyingly destructive from much greater distances. The tanker bomb that destroyed the Khobar towers in 1996, for example, was about 85 feet away.4

In order to counter this threat, the Defense Department plans to relocate its employees to buildings that are set back at least 82 feet from the street.5 Other non-defense agencies are requiring new buildings to have setbacks ranging from 20 to 100 feet, as regulated by the General Services Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.5 Unfortunately, as the FBI headquarters shows, the security perimeters of the 100-foot magnitude recommended by the GSA are functionally incompatible with a dense urban landscape like Washington, DC.

Other than the FBI, almost no agencies in downtown Washington have large setbacks. Many federal buildings, including the GSA headquarters itself, have driveways leading directly to the edge of the building, creating no setback whatsoever. Other, higher-profile buildings face less severe but still dangerous situations. The State Department headquarters manages to protect its exposed location only by closing off two city streets and closing lanes in two more. The result is a 50 foot setback6, enough to provide some protection against a small truck bomb, but a woefully inadequate distance to protect against a tour bus packed with explosives.

Perhaps the most severe situation exists at the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. Shockingly, nothing but grass stands between the southwest corner of the IRS building and a busy intersection.7 It's completely exposed. Given the importance of the adjacent traffic arteries, nothing short of draconian street closures or wholesale relocation can eliminate this risk.

For many agencies, relocation has been the preferred solution. The headquarters of the new Homeland Security Department is on a former Navy base several miles from the city center. The Defense department is expected to begin moving employees out of leased office buildings near the Pentagon in favor of more easily secured locations on military-owned land farther afield.8

The idea of relocation, while not ideal, is better than the alternatives. It is far preferable to the widespread street closures that have proliferated ever since the Secret Service closed a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue to secure the White House. The FBI's 30-year-old solution was equally bad, given that its urban bunker headquarters created a scar on the streetscape. It would have been better to put the FBI headquarters in the suburbs.

But what would become of L'Enfant's grand plan for Washington if the federal government it was designed to host abandons the city? Move too many federal organizations out of town, of course, and Washington ceases to be the capital. Unfortunately, the federal government is now so vast, that Americans can only dream this problem will come to fruition. There is no reason to relocate the more mundane agencies like the GSA -- who would want to attack the suppliers of bureaucrats' cubicles and paper clips? Ample similar agencies exist that are too obscure and mundane to hate.

For the agencies that extremists hate so much -- the Defense Department, the State Department, the FBI, and the IRS, their solution is clear: get out of town. Washingtonians will face fewer hassles, fewer eyesores, and be much safer when you are gone.

Related Web Columns:

Nothing They Can Do
The Terrorist Threat to the World Bank
, August 3, 2004

Suffering From Security, March 2, 2004

Securing a Closed Society, October 3, 2000

The Disposable President, July 27, 1998


1. As measured by the author, May 10, 2005.

2. Federal Bureau of Investigation, The History of FBI Headquarters: The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, As posted May 10, 2005

3. Hillman Consulting Engineers, A Structural Analysis of the Oklahoma City Bombing, April 1995

4. House National Security Committee, The Khobar Towers Bombing Incident, August 14, 1996

5. Washington Post, Defense Jobs in N.Va. At Risk, May 10, 2005

6. As measured by the author, May 10, 2005.

7. As witnessed by the author, May 10, 2005

8. Washington Post, Ibid.