HCFA headquarters to stay in Woodlawn Agency's decision ends city-county battle


The U.S. Health Care Financing Administration will keep its headquarters in Woodlawn, ending a high-stakes battle between Baltimore City and Baltimore County over the federal agency that runs Medicare and the 3,300 jobs the agency will have by 1995.

The competition ended yesterday when U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced two weeks early that HCFA will move to a custom-built, $122.6 million complex on Security Boulevard, slightly west of the agency's current headquarters.

The GSA chose a site offered by Boston Properties Inc. of Boston and James F. Knott Development Corp. of Towson over a city site offered by a joint venture of the Rouse Co. of Columbia, Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and the Henson Co., a real estate developer. The city group wanted HCFA to move to a square block immediately north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"It was probably clearer than we thought it would be, and as such, [the decision] didn't take as long to evaluate," said GSA spokesman John Thompson.

The 10 a.m. announcement ended a battle over a construction job that will be bigger than any metropolitan Baltimore office project of the past decade -- bigger than the USF&G; building downtown or all four office buildings surrounding the Owings Mills Mall combined. It is also far bigger than anything else that is expected to be built before 1995, when the HCFA complex is scheduled to open.

The move came as a relief to employees who wanted to stay in Woodlawn and to some government officials who had worried that an HCFA defection would undermine the economy of the county's west end.

"I'm very happy," said Julie Walton, an HCFA employee who lives in Howard County. "It would have been very hard to go downtown without I-70 running all the way. I would have been fighting traffic that's very, very congested."

Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, said she was concerned that an HCFA move could have led to a "hemorrhaging" of the Social Security Administration out of its current Woodlawn home. "Why should we convert a suburban area into a desolate spot by stripping it and moving it into the city?" she said.

The Social Security Administration is also based in Woodlawn, and some of HCFA's nine buildings are on the SSA grounds.

The decision disappointed the city, which had hoped that a relocated HCFA would become a linchpin in a plan to make Baltimore a national center for life sciences research and commerce.

"I think our building would have benefited the government over the long run much more," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. He said the HCFA decision wouldn't change the city's pursuit of life sciences institutions but added that "no strategy is going to be implemented smoothly. There will be setbacks."

The GSA's Mr. Thompson said the county proposal was better and less costly. The GSA has been adamant in refusing to discuss or release details of either proposal, but he said the county proposal scored better on selection criteria that included building quality, the record and management plan of the development teams, impact on employees and the "national headquarters identity" that a new building would give the agency.

County backers have contended that the land available at the 57-acre Woodlawn site would make it easier to expand HCFA's new headquarters, which would help in the building-quality category.

They also have claimed that Woodlawn would be better for employees because of simpler parking arrangements and because many employees already use doctors, day care centers and other services in Woodlawn.

Those issues kept the team led by Rouse on the defensive throughout much of the debate. Rouse Vice President Robert Minutoli countered that the city site met GSA's criteria for issues such as parking and that there was little difference between the city and county sites in terms of commuting times and risk of crime.

Many employees said moving downtown would subject them to more crime risk and much longer commutes, but GSA studies backed up Rouse's positions.

Employees also said that the GSA studies were part of a politically inspired plan to railroad HCFA into the city.

Both sides played political cards in a bid to land HCFA.

GSA officials, including Regional Administrator George Cordes, have said that HCFA leaders wanted to stay in Woodlawn all along, but an amendment sponsored by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, forced GSA to consider city sites as well.

This year, Mrs. Bentley joined with the union representing HCFA workers and with county government, business and civic leaders in a determined, public campaign to rally support for Woodlawn.

Mrs. Bentley, who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees the GSA and who has close ties to the Bush administration, acknowledged yesterday that she had met with Mr. Cordes to lobby for Woodlawn and had written to members of the White House staff.

Mrs. Bentley added that after a hot dog vendor and a companion were shot within blocks of the downtown Baltimore site in July, she sent a copy of newspaper accounts to Mr. Cordes.

City officials said that Mrs. Bentley's efforts politicized a situation that elected officials should have stayed out of. Some city leaders felt the workers' appeals exploited racial fears, although some black HCFA workers also publicly opposed a move to the city because of their fear of crime. In May, Mr. Schmoke invoked the Los Angeles riots as evidence of the need to give central cities such economic development plums as the HCFA headquarters.

The city did not launch any comparable lobbying effort.

"We did what our [development] team recommended as the best strategy, which was to focus on the merits of our proposal," the mayor said. "It was apparent that if it was a solely political decision we wouldn't be in the ballgame."

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