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Building with Reagan's name is budget-buster $818 million edifice costs twice original price, is 2nd in size only to Pentagon


WASHINGTON -- A monument to small government it is not.

When the newest federal office building opens tomorrow, in an era of government downsizing, and bearing the name of conservative former President Ronald Reagan, it will weigh in at twice the original price tag and as the second-biggest federal office building ever, after the Pentagon.

The total tab, with financing, will be $818 million. The square footage nearly equals the Sears Tower in Chicago. The 10-story atrium is covered by a barrel-vaulted ceiling with an acre of glass.

The Indiana limestone for the project, when it was laid out on the ground, covered 40 acres. The concrete alone would pave 106 miles of two-lane highway.

"This building meets the original objectives -- not to be a low-budget suburban office building," said Everett Medling, project director and principal at Ellerbe Becket, the Minneapolis architecture firm that oversaw construction and engineering. "It's clearly a [center] of activity of downtown D.C. for a lot of public, private and government functions."

But critics have had a field day with the monumental price tag and several-year delay in completion.

"This will go down as one of the watersheds of taxpayer waste," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers' Union.

Although little of the L-shaped building fronts on storied Pennsylvania Avenue, it carries the prestigious address of 1300 Pennsylvania Ave.

Medling said the building fits into the neo-classic surroundings of the Federal Triangle area and has limestone from the same quarry used 40 years ago to build the neighboring government buildings. It also offers public spaces, including two courtyards, he said.

The centerpiece of the building is the airy atrium, with sloping walls and a large curtain of metal and primary-colored neon. A food court with nearly 1,000 seats is tucked below. The public areas feature granite, patterned terrazzo floors and two-story windows.

But Sepp, of the anti-tax group, said he worries that the grand public spaces on the first three floors will send tourists away fretting about government waste.

The original under-$400 million price tag first touted to Congress was nearly doubled as soon as community and government leaders picked the design of world-famous architects Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

That's where Congress should have cut its losses or insisted on a more modest building, Sepp said.

Part of the jacked-up price was caused by changing the mission of the building after a 90-foot hole had been dug and construction begun.

The building was first intended to include a swank cultural center, with an opera house, IMAX theater and other amenities. But those plans were scrapped when the government landlord, the General Services Administration, figured it would be a money-losing proposition. The office building and international trade center remained.

The building that Nancy Reagan will help dedicate tomorrow devotes a quarter of its rentable space to an international trade center, which will function something like a cross between a hotel catering operation and a convention center. The 500,000 square feet will be managed by a private firm, which will rent out meeting space, a high-technology theater set up for simultaneous language translation, and a ballroom.

Much of the rest of the building will be devoted to federal bTC employees, who will make up about 6,000 of the 7,000 workers in the building. The U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Agency for International Development will be based there, as well as some workers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department.

Robert Hixon Jr., the Reagan building's project executive for GSA, said the federal agencies were paying rent to private owners for their office space before, much of it of lesser quality.

"We all know it's better to own your own. You have to pay for it for a few years, but then it's yours," Hixon said.

By 2005, the building's income from rent paid by government and private tenants is expected to surpass the operating costs, including the mortgage.

Having all the employees in technologically state-of-the-art facilities close to each other also will improve efficiency and communication, Medling said.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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