Lawmakers question whether DHS’ decade-long consolidation still makes sense

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More than a decade after the Homeland Security Department envisioned moving all of its offices in the Washington, D.C. area under one roof, lawmakers are questioning whether the agency should continue building its new consolidated headquarters using facilities that predate the Civil War.

In April 2019, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and executive leadership are scheduled to move into new offices at the St. Elizabeths Hospital Campus in Southeast Washington. The secretary’s office, based out of the historic Center Building, was built in 1855.

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On paper, a long line of DHS secretaries has supported the plan to relocate the agency to consolidate 45 agency offices spread out across the national capital region.

However, the DHS and General Services Administration have met considerable challenges in renovating a national historic landmark into a state-of-the-art hub for the country’s largest national security agency. The campus, which was once supposed to be completed by 2016, remains under construction and already faces challenges meeting its new 2021 deadline.

Testifying before members of the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, DHS and GSA officials said they’d draft a new consolidation plan before the end of this year. But with some agency components renewing leases at offices they were meant to vacate, lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office wonder whether a unified DHS campus can actually go forward as planned.

“The window to bring in other components may have already closed,” said Chris Currie, GAO’s director of emergency management, national preparedness and critical infrastructure protection.

Nearly four years ago, DHS told Congress that 70 percent of its leases in the national capital region would expire between 2016 and 2020. At that same hearing, GSA said the consolidation plan would eliminate 50 leases.

However, due to delays at the St. Elizabeths site, Currie said some DHS components have signed new leases or plan to move outright.

The Transportation Security Administration, for example, will build a new headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, taking more than 3,000 jobs with it. GSA announced the site of the new headquarters last August.

“As a result, it’s not clear that it’s even possible for St. E’s to be the consolidated headquarters that was originally planned,” Currie said.

As DHS and GSA develop a new strategy going forward, GAO recommends that DHS and GSA develop alternative plans for the St. Elizabeths campus.

“I’m not saying there needs to be something done somewhere else. I’m just saying there needs to be alternatives, considering what’s happened so far and the complexities of the project,” Currie said.

Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the oversight and management efficiency subcommittee, asked GSA and DHS whether moving the agency under one roof still makes sense.

“Is consolidation of these buildings, consolidations of these departments under one centralized location still the most effective way of protecting our citizens? And if it is, what’s the problem?” Correa asked.

Thomas Chaleki, the chief readiness support officer for DHS’ directorate for management, said consolidating the office is still in the agency’s best interests.

“This is absolutely what DHS wants to continue to do. Consolidation is very important to us. It’s as relevant today as when the department first stood up. My goal is to get as much of DHS headquarters consolidated as possible. St. E’s is our best solution going forward, both from an operational standpoint and a fiscal standpoint,” Chaleki said.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, asked whether tearing down some of the historic buildings on campus and building new facilities in their place would expedite the project.

“The site is magnificent, the buildings are magnificent and majestic. However — and I shudder to say this, because I love all that old stuff, I mean that — what is the cost of tearing that stuff down and just building a building?” Perry said.

Michael Gelber, the deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, said DHS and GSA are not required to maintain any of the old structures.

“Our approach has been to save what we can, and complete what we refer to as adaptive reuse, which is to take a historic structure and reuse it for a modern purpose,” Gelber told Perry , adding that the project must adhere to requirements from the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Historic Preservation Act.

“We have to comply with those statutes when dealing with a historic property to do all we can to either preserve or document the historic nature of that property,” he said.