ABC News' Mary Bruce reports:
House lawmakers took their show on the road today, holding a hearing in the vacant annex of the Old Post Office building to illustrate the importance of developing underutilized government properties.
“We are here in the annex of the Old Post Office building to turn a spotlight on vacant federal space in Washington and all across the nation so we may find ways to stop sitting on our assets and save taxpayer money,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chair of the subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management said at the hearing this morning.
Robert Peck, the head of the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, was issued a stern warning by the committee and told to hand over his full list of excess and surplus government-owned properties as soon as possible.
“Let me issue a warning to every agency that we are going to be demanding lists,” Denham said. “We want to know what properties are being utilized, underutilized, excess or surplus. We want to provide the president every opportunity to sell properties… If there is any red tape, if there’s anything that’s prohibiting them from providing those lists, we will make sure that this 112th Congress facilitates this process in a quick matter.”
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue just four blocks from the White House, the Old Post Office sits on some of the most valuable real estate in Washington D.C., but the annex has been vacant for over a decade. The GSA ultimately bought the master lease in 2001 after its private development partner went bankrupt.
The space, which was once a shopping pavilion including a food court, retail stores and a mini golf course now sits empty, costing taxpayers $6.5 million annually.
The GSA holds 282 excess or underutilized buildings which cost $93 million annually to operate, according to the GAO. But the problem doesn’t stop with the GSA. In fiscal year 2009, 24 federal agencies reported 45,190 underutilized buildings costing $1.66 billion annually to operate.
Lawmakers held the GSA’s feet to the fire today and made clear they are frustrated. “This is so redundant and repetitive, leading nowhere, and the patience of the subcommittee has run completely out,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.
“It’s just frustrating. We’ve been talking about this my entire career… We’ve got to do a better job,” said Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., warning that he would issue subpoenas if necessary to get these types of development projects moving.
In his defense, Peck noted that since 2002 the GSA has disposed of 204 vacant or underused properties and has undertaken a major portfolio restructuring.
“This administration recognizes the need to do a better job at getting rid of surplus and excess property,” Peck said, adding that the President is also “breathing down their neck.”
However, Peck also blamed bureaucratic red tape for the slow progress. “There is a cumbersome, probably too cumbersome process,” he said.
Asked repeatedly by the committee when the Old Post Office space would be developed, Peck reluctantly estimated it would take three years “before they cut the ribbon and we can say we’ve got an asset in full operation again.”