The Homeland Security Department is moving to an abandoned insane asylum.
The department outlined its $4.1 billion plan to consolidate most of its more than 60 Washington-area offices into a massive headquarters complex to be built at St. Elizabeths Hospital compound in Southeast Washington.
Department officials say the move will bring convenience savings and more camaraderie and cooperation among employees.
But employees shouldn’t start packing just yet. Most won’t begin moving to the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital compound in Southeast Washington until 2012 at the earliest, and the entire move won’t be done until 2015.
Homeland Security’s offices are scattered throughout Washington and Northern Virginia, an area that has some of the worst traffic in the nation. Homeland Security decided to start looking for a main headquarters site after a 2005 review ordered by Secretary Michael Chertoff showed people were spending too much time in traffic trying to get to meetings, spokesman Larry Orluskie said.
A headquarters complex “will ensure a unity of effort and command for the secretary, as well as build a culture and a spirit which are essential to having a happy and productive work force,” Undersecretary for Management Paul Schneider told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight at a March 1 hearing.
Senior officials are concerned that a single Homeland Security culture — one that encourages cooperation among components such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard — has not yet gelled. Schneider told the committee that grouping most component headquarters together will help foster a “one DHS” culture.
After consulting with the General Services Administration, Homeland Security settled on St. Elizabeths, which at 4.5 million square feet had the most available space in Washington. The District of Columbia will continue to operate the mental health institution on St. Elizabeths east campus. Homeland Security will take over the now-vacant west campus.
Homeland Security considered moving to Walter Reed Hospital, also in Washington, but decided against it because the Pentagon’s planned base closures would not shut it down in time. Homeland Security also rejected other Washington-area locations such as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site, which is expected to be demolished, and one of its current headquarters near the Naval Observatory because they either were not under federal control or were not big enough.
But even St. Elizabeths isn’t big enough to house all of Homeland Security’s 22,000 Washington-area employees, who are now housed in 7.1 million square feet.
The Secret Service, US-VISIT, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Office of the Inspector General, Citizenship and Immigration Services and science and technology directorate likely will remain off campus, according to an October plan prepared by the department.
Orluskie said that since most component headquarters will move nearly intact to the new compound, little will change about how agency managers work with their employees.
Similar moves have worked in the past. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was scattered among several Washington offices after it was created out of various disaster-related agencies in 1979. Until FEMA’s offices were combined into a single headquarters about 18 months later, the agency was disjointed and employees lacked a strong sense of identity, said Leo Bosner, the American Federation of Government Employees local president for FEMA.
“When they created the C Street headquarters, it did a lot of good,” Bosner said. “People were able to work face-to-face and meld together. . . . You theoretically could do things online [or with teleconferencing], but that doesn’t work all the time. People have got to work together and talk to each other.”
Former Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin also applauded the move.“A big problem from Day One has been a lack of cohesion and esprit de corps,” Ervin said. “It’s belated, but it’s better late than never.”
The department estimates it will cost $4.1 billion to develop St. Elizabeths and relocate the department’s offices there. But Schneider said the move will save the department $64 million a year in leasing costs. Homeland Security now rents 70 percent of its office space.
The Coast Guard will be the first to move in 2010, Orluskie said. Homeland Security’s headquarters functions will follow in 2012, and all remaining components will move between 2012 and 2015.
Mental health activist Dorothea Dix founded St. Elizabeths in 1855, and many Civil War veterans received treatment there. John Hinckley has been at St. Elizabeths since he shot President Reagan in 1981. Charles Guiteau, who killed President Garfield in 1881, and poet Ezra Pound also were committed to the hospital. The facility grounds include a cemetery of about 300 Union and Confederate soldiers who died while at the facility.
Orluskie said GSA insists on preserving the site’s historic value and will either leave historic buildings intact or renovate them from within, he said.