Arlington County officials expressed disappointment, confusion and anger over the announcement Friday that the National Science Foundation will leave the Ballston neighborhood for the city of Alexandria in 2017.
“We do not believe such a move would be in the best interests of the NSF, the federal government or the American taxpayer,” Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan said in a statement. ”Moving the NSF out of Arlington would run counter to the federal government’s investments over the last two decades in Arlington’s 'scientific center of excellence' that serves our defense and national security interests so well.”
The National Science Foundation is generally credited for being a lynchpin in the transformation of Ballston over the past 20 years. The NSF employs about 2,400 people and has an annual budget of more than $7 billion.
The NSF is considered integral to the science, technology and research hub in Ballston — a hub rounded out by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Office of Naval Research and the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Center, and a number of private companies.
"First, I will say, I am miffed — disappointed and miffed," Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette told Patch. "From what I know, it doesn't make sense undoing the science cluster that the federal government has spent two decades creating in Ballston. There's been a lot of investment. You've got the Office of Naval Research, DARPA… And we know how hard we all worked on that, and the GSA referred to them staying as 'mission critical.'
"…So I do not understand why GSA would choose to damage that synergy."
Arlington officials are questioning the criteria used by the GSA, which manages most real estate transactions for the federal government.
According to a county news release:
Given concerns with GSA’s recent leasing decisions, County officials expect there will be vigorous oversight by Congress and others in the coming weeks. There are many unanswered questions about this announced move, and whether it would achieve the savings that GSA projects. “We continue to believe that Arlington County offers the lowest cost and highest value option for the NSF and other government agencies,” Donnellan said.
Fisette said Arlington "definitely worked with the property owner and came up with what we felt were very reasonable incentives that would appeal." The NSF currently leases about 665,000 square feet from Dweck Properties.
"We were competing very hard for this," Fisette told Patch. "We've been working on it very hard with the property owner, Dweck, here in Ballston. They would have had a refurbished building right here in the center of this cluster. The costs of a new building are much higher. So, somebody is paying for that."
Some of that will come from Alexandria taxpayers. The city of Alexandria issued a news release Friday afternoon saying that in order to keep bids as competitive as possible, the city proposed creating a special science redevelopment tax district.
That district is still subject to a public hearing and Alexandria City Council approval. The Alexandria property used by the NSF would be subject to a lower rate and save the agency $23 million over the course of its 15-year lease. The city is projecting the new district still would generate $50 million in new tax revenue for Alexandria.
The GSA, in announcing the move, said its rental rate for a new 661,000-square-foot building in Alexandria's Eisenhower Valley would be 30 percent below the market rate and is projected to save taxpayers $65 million over 15 years.
The deal also provides the federal government with $35 million, which can be applied to a number of other areas.
"It was part of Hoffman's proposal," GSA spokesman Dan Cruz told Patch in an email. "The rental rate includes a 'move-in allowance' of $35 million that is available once the government accepts the final phase of the tenant build out as substantially complete. The $35 million may be used as free rent, for tenant improvements to the building, relocation costs, and other costs that are allowable under GSA leasing and pricing policy."
Cruz would not say how many jurisdictions made bids for the NSF.
Arlington officials haven't released specifics over what the county offered.
"We can't release details of any negotiations," Arlington Economic Development spokeswoman Cara O'Donnell told Patch in an email. "We can say Arlington expects all employers to pay for public services they receive and the federal government is not an exception."
The GSA has been criticized in recent months for politicizing the bidding processes it oversees. Fisette said Friday that the administration is pitting local jurisdictions against one another, the likes of which hasn't been seen in years.
He said the county is still asking questions.
"We're trying to understand," he said. "I don't see this etched in stone as some do…"
When asked if the GSA considered breaking up the science and technology cluster in Ballston, Cruz only said that the agency worked with the NSF to identify a competitive area based on the National Science Foundation's mission requirements.