How Communities Can Unlock the Value of Federal Property

It's valuable real estate for development. Working together, local and federal leaders can put it to work.
September 5, 2017
Boston's John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse
Boston's John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse (FlickrCC/Michael Muraz)
By Denise Turner Roth  |  Contributor
Senior adviser at WSP USA and a former administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration

Towns and cities across the country seek development that promotes vibrant, people-oriented, mixed-use communities. The federal government, which owns significant tracts of land in prime areas for redevelopment, could be a key partner, but genuine collaboration between community leaders and federal officials is essential.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is the nation's largest holder of commercial property, with more than 375 million square feet of space in 9,600 buildings housing more than a million federal employees. Virtually every American community has federal property, including some of the most valuable local real estate. Ignoring this reality will lead to missed opportunities.

Across the county, local and federal officials have coordinated on a number of successful redevelopment efforts:

• In Fresno, Calif., the federal government aligned its property strategy to complement local efforts to revitalize the city's historic Main Street by relocating two federal agencies when their leases came up for renewal. One of the new tenants, a Social Security Administration office, has created an influx of 4,300 patrons a month to the heart of Fresno's historic district.

• In Boston, the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse contributed to a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly waterfront plaza. As a result of coordinated federal and local leadership, roughly half of the site is devoted to a public park that invites visitors and pedestrians to enjoy the waterfront of Boston Harbor.

• In Washington, D.C., The Yards development has transformed a former federally owned munitions site and wastewater plant that had sat underutilized and partially empty since World War II. Local leaders and developers teamed with the GSA in creating a vision for a beautiful mixed-use waterfront property. Multiple historic buildings on the 42-acre site were refurbished and put back to use.

Projects like these, where localities and the federal government have successfully collaborated, invariably have something in common: Community leaders created a vision and a plan for what they wanted, and they leveraged their influence to make it happen.

But where such collaboration is lacking, communities can find themselves in situations like that of Des Moines, Iowa, where local officials and residents object to the planned location of a new federal courthouse along the river in the city's downtown, believing it will preclude the kind of mixed-use development they want. If the project proceeds in the announced location, it will occupy one of the community's most attractive and economically valuable sites.

However, viewed from another perspective, and with the right community engagement, Des Moines could promote the new federal courthouse as an anchor of the kind of development the city seeks. Many federal courthouses prove to be hubs of activity, attracting a steady flow of employees and visitors that support other mixed-use redevelopment in adjacent areas.

Several important factors combine to make federal and local cooperation increasingly attractive. Federal tax dollars are best leveraged when they are complemented by local and private dollars. Local communities can benefit from new federal construction when it serves as an anchor for broader redevelopment. Meanwhile, the federal government benefits when its property is enhanced with local improvements such as walking paths, transit and commercial development.

However, serious disconnects sometimes occur. For example, federal agencies sometimes invest in one location while community and private developers invest across town. Federal decisions sometimes do not take into account the highest and best use of land. And the time that it takes the federal government to dispose of underutilized and empty properties can undermine redevelopment efforts.

How do community leaders build a good partnership with the federal government to strengthen revitalization plans? In short, they must lead the way.

Local leaders should approach this challenge as a community effort, inviting the participation of the best minds from both the public and private sectors. Communities that have federal property should assess the status and viability of those sites, and then engage federal officials in discussing the future of those properties, just as they would partner with local developers and property owners. This is especially true for sites that are underutilized or sitting vacant.

Cities with viable redevelopment plans in place are best positioned to pursue a successful partnership with federal agencies. So communities must be proactive and take responsibility for hashing out zoning issues, engaging private partners, seeking financing, and collaborating with local and federal political leaders.

Developing strong relationships with federal officials can influence the decisions made about the development of federal property, potentially unlocking its economic potential. It's a great opportunity to develop smart strategies for making communities better places to work, live and play.