Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Moving Forward: Revitalizing the HUD headquarters building (a thought experiment)

by Jeffrey Lubell, Center for Housing Policy

DISCLAIMER: In this challenging budget environment, I would never propose taking funds away from low-income housing programs to invest in upgrading the HUD headquarters.  But if NASA can dream of sending people to Mars, I can dream of a revitalized HUD headquarters building that fully represents the values for which HUD proudly stands.

People tend to have strong opinions about the Brutalist architectural style of the HUD headquarters building. In my three years at HUD, I found the concrete interior and long maze of hallways to provide an uninspiring and depressing work environment. Of equal concern, though, is how the building stands wholly apart from (rather than integrated into) the local environment of Southwest D.C. Where is the ground floor retail? Where are the mix of uses and the inspiration of attractive urban form?

With HUD striving to put the "UD" (Urban Development) back in HUD, it would be worth considering how the revitalization of the HUD headquarters building could serve as a showcase for modern urban development strategies as well as an opportunity to highlight for Congress and the general public the various obstacles to this type of development and how they can be overcome.

HUD Headquarters Building. Photo by Flickr user joseph a.
Imagine for a moment that a private donor offered to provide HUD with dedicated funding specifically for revitalizing the HUD headquarters. What should HUD do? Certainly, the feasibility of rehabilitating the existing structure should be evaluated. But given how much change is needed to produce the first-class work environment that HUD employees deserve and the urban design statement that needs to be made, I suspect rehab is unlikely to be an effective solution. More effective choices including demolishing the current structure and rebuilding onsite (an option complicated by the building's national landmark status) or selling the building and relocating somewhere else.

Relocating to another site would allow for the retention of the HUD building if another entity found continued value in preserving it. It also would have the advantage of facilitating a dialogue about how well-planned development can contribute to stronger communities. Would the presence of HUD's headquarters in one neighborhood rather than another be more valuable from a community development standpoint? What impact would the development have on local housing prices? Would it increase demand for housing nearby, and if so, what steps would be taken to preserve affordability of existing affordable housing and ensure supply were increased to keep up with demand? How much red tape would HUD have to go through to obtain the necessary zoning changes and permits to implement its redevelopment plan?

HUD headquarters looms behind a row of houses. Photo by flickr user dbkingThere would likely be considerable educational value in involving Congress and other stakeholders in this dialogue. What better opportunity could there be to showcase the benefits of mixed-use, mixed-income development, the importance of developing strong policies to preserve affordability in the area surrounding new development, and the value of integrating housing, land use, transportation and environmental planning?

Especially if some affordable housing were included in the final development—and why not?—this would also be a good opportunity to highlight some of the challenges involved in mixed-use and mixed-income development. Are our existing mortgage insurance products adequate for insuring a complicated mixed-use development? How hard is it to develop a low-income housing tax credit property that serves a mix of incomes? Does the tax credit allocation process adequately assess whether there is demand for affordable housing in this particular location? Do project-based vouchers allow for the long-term affordability needed to preserve affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods? How do you pay for the infrastructure costs associated with place-making?

Of course, redevelopment would pose a major disruption in the working environment of HUD staff. In evaluating the pros and cons of redevelopment, HUD would definitely want to consider the human costs of relocation in terms of lost productivity and expense. The HUD building is also particularly well-located relative to public transit, with access to four Metro lines and the Virginia Railway; would a new site be as accessible by transit and bicycle? As with the dialogue about urban form, a public dialogue about the human costs of development would also have educational value, underscoring the importance of this sometimes overlooked component of the development process.

Just as we involve residents in the planning process for major urban development, we would want to involve HUD staff in the process of planning a new office environment. It would be important to hear what current staff think about the pros and cons of redevelopment, but my view is that HUD staff deserve an attractive work environment that enables them to operate at full productivity and develop the world-class housing policy we need in this country.

The U.S. Department of Transportation moved several years ago. Take a look at their new headquarters—it provides a far more productive work environment than the old office ever did. In 2009, the District of Columbia's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) relocated to Historic Anacostia, a predominantly African-American and low-income community in Southeast D.C. whose development DHCD was interested in fostering. As former DHCD Director Leila Finucane Edmonds told me, "the move to Anacostia led to a new understanding of the agency, internally and externally, as a catalytic resource for community development." Among other outcomes, the move led DHCD to increase its focus on customer service, leading to a re-envisioned Housing Resource Center that better served the community.

The physical headquarters of the nation's Department of Housing and Urban Development is more than just a building. It's also a symbol. Thoughtful redevelopment could give us an opportunity to clarify the values we wish that symbol to represent.


PublicUnHealth said...

HUDs history shows that investing in people, not buildings, gives better results. HUD does not need a renovated building as their legacy, they should instead focus on improving the lives of those they serve as their legacy.

Anonymous said...

while i appreciate the message in your article and find it has merit, i think HUD should first focus their limited energies on making their operations more efficient and consistent. getting side tracked on building design and moving will not help them process grant agreements in a timely fashion. First things first!

Mariia Zimmerman said...

As someone who also spent time working in this bldg I support your premise! I do, however, think that the I-395 trench adjacent to the HUD bldg presents an even greater barrier to neighborhood redevelopment and livability. Finding ways to reclaim these spaces across the SE side of DC would do much for those living and working on both sides.

Mike Pucci said...

Good article. Jack Kemp's comment describing the building as ten floors of basement is pretty accurate. I think the building needs to be torn down. The fact that it is a national landmark needs to be evaluated as well as the process for getting buildings like this designated as national landmarks.

Anonymous said...

Actually, they're renovating the building, mostly for enegy efficiency, right now. In fact, at any given time about 20% of the occupants are relocated to Capitol View a few blocks from here.

Barry Steffen said...

The HUD building could be reconciled with the neighborhood by constructing low-rise retail shops along 7th St and bridging the HUD courtyard with a high glass canopy, like the Kogod courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery building: Constructing a few balconies to overlook the courtyard could help remedy HUD's lack of a large auditorium.

Jennifer Lavorel said...

If we're claiming a do-over, how about a ground floor museum devoted to urban policy?

Jim Gray said...

I like Barry's idea. As a denizen of the new building across the street, I can attest to the need for retail in this neighborhood. How anomolous that we have no street life just above arguably the main crossroads Metro station. Perhaps L'Enfant Plaza could be the home of the first-ever federal business improvement district?