In an era of federal indifference to cities, the General Services Administration is an innovative exception.
It's been a long time since Washington has had much in the way of an urban strategy. There's a case to be made that cities are better off as a result.
Many city leaders and urban activists trace the decline of federal interest in cities back to 1975, when President Gerald Ford refused to bail out a nearly bankrupt New York, eliciting the famous headline, "Ford to City: Drop Dead." But it was that same year that the first business improvement district was formed in downtown New Orleans. Realizing that the "federal doctor doesn't make house calls anymore," as Paul Levy, president of the Philadelphia Center City District, puts it, cities turned to the private sector for new development, and many have prospered as a result. "There's a sick irony, that the withdrawal of federal agencies from the cities has done more for the cities than all previous federal activities combined," says Lorlene Hoyt, an urban planning professor at MIT.
But the federal government hasn't entirely gotten out of the business of helping cities. Perhaps the most successful current effort is one that not too many people know about, even though it's existed for a long time. It's the General Services Administration's "good neighbor" urban development program, aimed at keeping as many federal employees as possible working in central cities rather than spreading them around to suburban locations and contributing to sprawl. GSA is the real estate manager for most civilian federal agencies. When it wants to locate a facility in a downtown area, it often has the clout to make sure the agency goes there. Much of the time, it does that in collaboration with a business improvement district or other local partnership.
A new IRS facility in Ogden, Utah, built on a former brownfield site, is a good example, one that has provided an anchor for downtown redevelopment and expansion. The first batch of IRS employees liked the downtown setting so much that another wave moved in from a different suburban location. "That was a great partnership with GSA," says Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey. "We are in the midst of a major urban renewal, and they were the first big part of it."
The federal commitment to helping cities redevelop their downtowns can run into conflict with 21st-century security concerns. In many instances, agencies decide to move out to the suburbs mainly to gain more control over their surroundings. But even security requirements can be turned into a plus. For example, the street between the courthouse and a new U.S. Attorney's building in Sioux Falls had to be closed. But the feds, in conjunction with city officials, have turned that area into a public plaza, ideal for concerts, farmer's markets and other festivals. In Denver, EPA employees wanted to stay downtown and found a space in the fashionable LoDo area. Federal regulations now call for a 50-foot setback from the street--but that just opened up room, in this case, for ground-level retail.
"The good neighbor program is about the federal government doing as much as it can to support community goals," says Frank Giblin, the program's director. "But where there's a vibrant space and high- quality downtown, that's really in our interest as well."