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ARLINGTON, VA-Last month, when the Pentagon began the painful process of announcing base closures around the country, it cited a curious reason why it was abandoning its office leases in this suburb some 10 miles outside of Washington, DC. The buildings, in which thousands of Department of Defense employees work, did not meet the General Service Administration’s antiterrorism standards. Among other requirements, the standards call for buildings not on military bases to be set back at least 82 ft from traffic. The departure, if it is approved by Congress, will result in four million sf of vacant office space here.

Local officials and industry executives in the area wonder if the standards are indeed the reason for the Pentagon’s decision. “There is a fundamental question as to whether the force protection rational is a legitimate BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure Commission] criteria,” says Shaun Pharr, senior vice president of government affairs for the Building Owners & Managers Association.

These standards have been under development since 2002, finalized close to a year ago. But, Pharr says this is the first time they have been spotlighted to such an extent. This case is also the first time they have been strictly applied.

“Private-sector developers that want GSA tenants obviously have been following their development and trying to position themselves to incorporate them into their buildings,” Pharr says. But up until now, there has been a certain amount of latitude in the application of these standards, he notes.

GSA leasing accounts for one-third of the entire private office space occupancy in the Washington, DC area, Pharr says, so the Pentagon’s decision could well have wider implications.

“DC is a built environment—if these requirements for federal buildings or federal occupancy are strictly applied, the 82-foot requirement won’t be achievable in much of the city,” Pharr says. “The result will be that GSA, on behalf of its federal clients, will be looking elsewhere for compliant buildings.”

Pharr says the real estate industry has been working with GSA on its security concerns. Meanwhile, he says, the government procurement agency has signaled “that it recognized that federal agencies belong in the nation’s capital.” For instance, GSA has been applying the standards on a case-by-case basis, acknowledging that some government operations require more security than others.

But with the Pentagon—or rather, the Department of Defense—making a rigid interpretation of the standards, an element of uncertainty has been introduced in the local real estate market, Pharr says. The landmark Ronald Regan International Trade Building, located on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the US Commerce Department, for instance, is not compliant with these standards, even though it is a federally owned office building that is privately managed. “Can the federal government continue to use this building? According to the Pentagon, it can’t,” Pharr points out.

GSA, on the other hand, has not adopted such rigid positions. “They offer the opportunity to have a dialogue with them and developers and city planners are able to craft compromises,” Pharr says. Sooner or later, he says, the two disparate interpretations are going to have to be resolved to provide certainty to the both the local real estate operators and their federal tenants.

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