Westphalia developer floats bus plan to lure FBI to Prince George’s County

A $3 billion Canadian real estate firm plans to begin work shortly on what may be Prince George’s County’s largest development since National Harbor, and it is pulling out all the stops to get the FBI to build a headquarters there as a focal point.

The Walton Group, one of North America’s largest land developers, purchased the 479-acre Westphalia Town Center project along Pennsylvania Avenue near Andrews Air Force Base in February of last year, and says it will begin construction this month.

The first phase of the project calls for 347 town homes, more than 400 apartments, 450,000 square feet of retail and a 150-room hotel. Under previous ownership, the project stalled because of the recession, loan defaults and a conviction on extortion charges for one of the project’s principals.

But after buying the property for $29.5 million in February of last year, Walton chief executive Bill Doherty said he is three-to-four weeks from beginning construction. “This is a very real project. We’re moving fast. This is happening,” he said.

Doherty is so intent on drawing the FBI’s headquarters out of the District and to a 51-acre portion of Westphalia that he has proposed construction of a five-mile bus rapid transit system beginning at the Branch Avenue Metro station and continuing along dedicated lanes built on the median of the Capital Beltway, and then onto Pennsylvania Avenue to the site.

Such a bus system would address a weak spot in Westphalia’s effort to meet the security agency’s needs — the site’s lack of public transit options. In 2011, the Senatepassed a resolution that would require the FBI to choose a location within two miles of a Metro station, and FBI leadership has reiterated its interest in being near public transit.

Doherty estimates that the bus system could cost as much as $75 million, but could serve Andrews Air Force Base as well as the FBI. Walton would be willing to pay for a large portion of it, he said. “It’s something that we would be willing to do, and it would serve the county’s needs as well,” he said.

Building a case

The bus rapid transit idea is Walton’s alone. Although bus rapid transit plans have been hatched in other parts of the region, the idea has not been included in any county plan for Westphalia and has never appeared on a list of county transportation projects.

The developer also must deal with the fact that County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison have already publicly backed a proposal to lure the FBI to Greenbelt. In a Feb. 26 letter they co-wrote to Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator of the General Services Administration, they called Greenbelt “a superior site that offers many outstanding attributes, including immediate access to Metro and the Capital Beltway, the ability to support a high quality consolidated, secure office campus, and access to attractive retail and other amenities.”

In all, Walton owns 3,100 acres in Maryland (including 2,500 in Prince George’s County), and Doherty is doing his best to make in-roads with elected leaders.He has met with Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and the staffs of Baker, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D), Rep. Donna Edwards (D) and others. Walton has also hired a former aide to Gov. Martin O’Malley, Rick Abbruzzese, now of Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan and Silver, as well as the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, to help make its case.

Building transportation infrastructure for Metro connections when the county has available land closer to stations seems superfluous to some smart growth advocates. The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a District-based advocacy group, has been arguing against spending more transportation funds on Westphalia and other subdivision projects away from transit.

“The basis of sprawl is that it’s cheaper to find an empty piece of land that doesn’t have infrastructure and then have the public pay for those improvements,” said Cheryl Cort, the group’s policy director. “But a more inclusive account of costs would show that for workers and the county and the state, investing in compact development at the existing 15 Metro stations makes a lot more fiscal sense.”

But Doherty said Westphalia has advantages that other sites, including Greenbelt, do not, including ample space for security protections, no requirement for expensive parking garages and the chance for housing and shopping amenities within strolling distance of the offices. Though he was not happy to read Baker’s letter, Doherty said no one in Maryland government had attempted to dissuade him. “Not once did we ever get the feeling that they did not want us to proceed,” he said.

Would Baker support a site other than Greenbelt?

“Our first priority is to present a compelling case for FBI to relocate to Prince George’s County,” Baker’s spokesman, Scott Peterson, said. “We are fortunate to have a number of sites in Prince George’s County that could accommodate FBI, including the Greenbelt Metro Station.”

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