The Fight to Keep the National Science Foundation in Arlington
Leone: Agency has helped Ballston evolve into 'a center for innovation.'
For Tina Leone, it’s not hard to imagine that two strangers would start talking while in line for coffee at Buzz Bakery and end up planting the seeds for a major research and development contract.
The National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Naval Research and the Virginia Tech Research Center are all located within a few blocks of each other — not to mention a slew of smaller companies that do business with them. That connectivity has helped define Ballston and benefits everyone involved, she said.
Leone, the executive director of the Ballston Business Improvement District, said the presence of the National Science Foundation, or NSF, helped Ballston to evolve into what it is today — “a center for innovation.”
“They're a very important part of Ballston, and they help us further solidify our position that Ballston is a place for innovation and discovery,” she said.
Arlington is fighting to keep the NSF and risks losing it to other, less expensive, locations in Northern Virginia — to Alexandria, for instance, or to one of the localities along the Silver Line. For the amount of space the agency needs, the cost of doing business in Arlington is potentially millions of dollars more than in neighboring jurisdictions.
The NSF occupies most of two buildings in the 4200 block of Wilson Boulevard. Its leases expire next year.
The General Services Administration, or GSA, which manages the office space of federal agencies, among other things, is seeking to procure a single lease that consolidates those two existing leases and gives that agency a bit more space — and keeps the cost per square foot under a $38 cap.
The average cost per square foot for office space in Ballston was $43.57 as of last Friday, according to CoStar data provided to Patch by Arlington Economic Development. Ballston has the second-highest cost of office space in Arlington County, only 15 cents cheaper per square foot than in Rosslyn.
And the average for Arlington County as a whole, a little more than $41 per square foot, makes paying $28 to $30 per square foot for office space in Tysons Corner, Reston or Herndon look all the more enticing — particularly with the Silver Line coming online soon.
That puts pressure on Leone and others in Arlington County who would like to see the independent federal agency — and its 1,500 employees — stay put.
“We want to keep them here,” Leone said. “They're a huge a asset.”
Congress must approve any federal office lease that totals more than $2.7 million annually in a prospectus before the GSA can proceed.
That lays out the competitive area for potential locations, among other parameters. The search area for the NSF is currently limited to Northern Virginia and does not include Washington or Maryland, a GSA spokesman said.
The GSA asked Congress for 690,000 square feet to house the National Science Foundation in December 2010. In March 2012, a House committee ultimately approved 668,000 square feet for the agency, only slightly more than its current 665,000-square-foot digs in Ballston.
At $38 per square foot, that's a $25.4 million deal. But that amount of space in Ballston, on average, goes for more than $29 million.
The amount of the NSF's current leases were not immediately available this week.
The GSA handles negotiations and makes the ultimate decision to sign a lease. Costs of moving and renovating new space are taken into consideration in the case of lease renewals. The GSA manages 100 million square feet of federal office space, more than half of it under lease. And about 10 percent of those leases are up for renewal each year.
The NSF’s current location should be enough to handle its slight expansion. In June, the owner of the two buildings put them up for sale but listed them as 100 percent leased because it’s unclear whether the federal agency will stay or go, according to the Washington Post.
Federal leases are often seen as desirable because they give landlords certainty and offer a fair amount of predictability — enough so that some potential landlords are willing to lower their prices in order to secure such a lease, said one source familiar with the process.
The GSA in particular seeks locations that are within a half-mile walking distance from a Metro stop.
“Ballston is already in a place other communities are trying to get to — it’s walkable, it has Metro access, it’s a great place to live, work and play,” Leone said. “There is a threat that these other communities are going to have a desirable location. We've got that already. We need to protect that. And capitalize on it.”
Alexandria 'Agressively' Pursuing NSF
One such threat is right next door.
The average cost per square foot for office space in the city of Alexandria is about $30, peaking at an average of $32 in Old Town, according to the CoStar data.
Last year, Alexandria Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said that city would pursue the NSF "aggressively" and compared the process to Alexandria successfully landing the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.
“From my understanding, the NSF is doing its cost-benefit analysis to determine if it even makes sense to move out of Arlington,” Alexandria City Councilman Frank Fannon told Patch. “If it does, then that sets off a tremendous amount of regional competition.”
Fannon said Alexandria has three sites for potential bids — the Zell property at the eastern end of Eisenhower Avenue, a property near the Hoffman Center movie theater and the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station, and the Victory Center near the Van Dorn Street Metro station.
Fannon said landing the NSF would not only result in a big boost in jobs for the city, but that contractors would follow and result in other benefits.
“They bring in a huge hotel business, too,” he said. “If they picked Alexandria, it would probably be cause for a new hotel to be built near them.”
Fannon did say that the creation of Metro's Silver Line to points west like Tysons Corner and Reston will make it “much harder” for the city to be competitive in luring large offices to town.
'A Detrimental Effect'
The NSF has an annual budget of about $7 billion. Each year, the agency receives more than 50,000 requests for funding — and approves about 11,000 of them. One Forbes contributor has called the agency America’s biggest angel investor. Nearly 200 Nobel Prize winners have received NSF funding at some point in their careers, according to the agency’s website.
It’s not the kind of tenant Arlington is going to give up easily.
“The bottom line is we've been working on this lease for 2.5 years now. The idea that we would lose it … is not something we would find acceptable,” U.S. Rep. Jim Moran said in a telephone interview.
He added that his office has been working closely with the NSF and Arlington Economic Development and said, “I am confident that our efforts will pay off.”
In a February 2010 letter to the head of GSA, Moran and U.S. Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner called Arlington County “a national epicenter for scientific research, particularly in the areas of defense and homeland security.”
The letter cites the nearby DARPA headquarters and the Office of Naval Research and states the NSF’s access to experts at those organizations is “critical” to its mission.
Moran, Webb and Warner cited a past Base Realignment and Closure Commission report that concluded moving DARPA from Arlington to Bethesda, Md., would have a “detrimental effect” on its employees being able to perform their mission.
"Likewise, we believe a relocation of NSF headquarters away from Arlington would lead to the same 'detrimental effect' on the ability of each of these research organizations to achieve their agency objectives," the letter states.
Moran was part of the successful fight to keep DARPA in Arlington. His office is drafting another letter to the GSA advocating the National Science Foundation stay in Arlington, spokeswoman Anne Hughes said.
About 53 percent of NSF's employees live in Northern Virginia, most of them within five miles of the current headquarters, agency spokeswoman Dana Topousis said in an email. Another 7 percent are temporary employees from universities across the country on assignment who typically stay close to the headquarters while they're here, she stated.
“There's nothing wrong with those (other) locations but for the fact that they don't have public transportation, they haven't made the investment in the infrastructure, and the majority of NSF employees live in Northern Virginia and a great many of them walk, bike or take public transit to work,” Moran told Patch. “That's what we're trying to achieve, and GSA shares that objective.”
Leone, before joining the Ballston Business Improvement District, was president of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. There, at the request of chamber and city officials, she wrote a letter on their behalf advocating that the NSF move to that city.
Since joining the BID, though, she’s advocated keeping the NSF in Ballston.
The BID, a special tax district designed to market and promote Ballston, brought Joe Burt, a senior advisor at the NSF, onto its inaugural board of directors. Burt fills the board’s science and technology slot, and his presence is by design — it further integrates the National Science Foundation into the surrounding community, Leone said.
The BID has expressed its desire for the agency to stay in Ballston through Burt though is not directly involved in negotiations.
But it is helping in other ways.
In May, the NSF held a global summit that drew scientific leaders from more than 50 countries to Ballston. The BID was among the sponsors and hosted a reception for attendees to help spread the message of “what’s happening in Ballston,” Leone said.
Over the next few months, the BID is working on finalizing its programming schedule for the next three years. One goal is to involve the NSF in those programs, “to tie them to the community and let the community know what the NSF is doing,” Leone said. That includes spreading the word about any opportunities to do business with the agency.
“It's great because Ballston is almost undiscovered,” Leone said. “All of these discoveries are made here … It's worth another look. And that's what the BID is for, to make sure that happens.”
Officials with the National Science Foundation, the General Services Administration, Arlington Economic Development and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would not comment on ongoing negotiations.
Dweck Properties in Washington, which owns the buildings the NSF currently calls home, would not make anyone available to answer questions for this article.
Patch editors Drew Hansen and Sharon McLoone contributed to this report.