The Department of Homeland Security has a new plan to consolidate its headquarters – cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in costs while fitting thousands more employees into less space.

The initial plan developed in 2006 called for $3.45 billion to consolidate DHS operations and up to 12,800 employees on the site of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., by the end of fiscal 2016.

But years of repeated congressional budget cuts pushed up the cost to nearly $4 billion and dragged the timeline out to fiscal 2021 and beyond.

Now DHS and GSA - which manages the project for DHS - have an "enhanced" plan in the 2016 budget request that only costs about $2.4 billion — $1 billion less than the original plan. The space individual employees would occupy was also reduced from 230 square feet each to 155.

The reduction would allow the agency to increase the number of employees housed at the new headquarters to about 18,000. A variety of teleworking and hoteling techniques would maximize existing real estate and accommodate more employees.

"The enhanced plan developed by DHS and GSA proposes to save money by reducing overall construction at St. Elizabeths and the space requirements at other locations," a DHS spokeswoman said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters would no longer be built across the street from the site but instead be moved back on the main 176-acre St. Elizabeths campus, according to a project prospectus.

The Center building on the Saint Elizabeth's Hospital West Campus will serve the staff of the Homeland Security Secretary when renovations are completed as photographed on January, 6 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
The Center building on the Saint Elizabeth's Hospital West Campus will serve the staff of the Homeland Security Secretary when renovations are completed as photographed on January, 6 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Colin Kelly / Staff)

DHS has not come to any final conclusions about whether FEMA would still get its own facility like the Coast Guard or if it would be folded into the existing renovated buildings on campus, according to the agency.

The new plan would be jumpstarted by a GSA request for $380 million to finish the center building – which would house the DHS secretary and its related offices and employees.

GSA and DHS have already finished aspects of the headquarters campus, including:

  • The $435 million, 1.1 million-square-foot Coast Guard building — completed in 2013 — houses up to 4,000 employees. Featuring a grass roof and a reflecting pool for water runoff, the building received LEED Gold certification, the second-highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
  • A number of smaller buildings housing amenities, eating facilities and additional staff space for shared services and maintenance crews.
  • Much of the access road and perimeter fence construction, along with the a lot of the underground infrastructure and utility cables.

The order of construction has also been altered slightly. GSA wants to finish the center building first, with the leadership of the other agencies following closely afterwards. Then facilities for the FEMA headquarters would be finished, followed by space for large numbers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection employees.

The new project would be completed around fiscal 2021 under the new plan.

Local and federal officials held a ceremony opening the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters on the St. Elizabeths Campus in Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 29, 2013. (Mike Morones/Staff)
Local and federal officials held a ceremony opening the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters on the St. Elizabeths Campus in Washington, D.C., on Monday, July 29, 2013. (Mike Morones/Staff)

The new plan will help lower costs and make the rest of the DHS consolidation a more realistic possibility, according to Chris Cummiskey, former undersecretary for management at DHS and currently an independent consultant on government management issues.

"You know you are not going to get big chunks of money for the project. Getting the DHS secretary onto the campus would make the rest of the dominos start to fall," Cummiskey said. "Finding a way to make that happen is really the task at hand."

He said DHS has consistently said the agency needs a unified and consolidated headquarters to help coordinate functions, share intelligence and make the most of the shared resources the agency offers.

DHs would save money on leasing and operational costs while making the most of its shared location, Cummiskey said.

"The department needs a command and control center of a 21st century nature," Cummiskey said. "And it makes a lot of sense to have one."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he was encouraged the administration was moving forward with the project with a plan to speed up its completion. The need for a centralized headquarters for DHS is critical, Carper added.

"That said, I have some questions about the new plan which proposes to reduce the size of the project. I look forward to carefully examining the new proposal," Carper said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the project has run into political problems since it was first started, with Republicans increasingly hostile to properly funding its construction.

"I am glad that the Department has worked with the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget on a new, more cost effective plan to better utilize space and resources. That plan however, is contingent on Congress coming together and funding the project and it's difficult to be optimistic as Congress has been holding up full-year funding for the Department for months," Thompson said.