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EPA Region 7: "We were just kidding about that sustainability stuff"

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 18, 2011

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In defiance of the environmental values it supposedly stands for, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is moving its regional headquarters from a walkable, transit-rich, downtown Kansas City (Kansas) neighborhood to one of the worst examples of suburban sprawl it could have possibly found, some 20 miles from downtown.  The result could nearly triple transportation carbon emissions associated with the facility. 

In addition, around 600 federal and associated civilian employees will abandon a central city at a time when the agency’s own staff is writing reports suggesting that central cities in the US are making a comeback.  Kansas City, Kansas (population 145,786) is much smaller than neighboring Kansas City, Missouri; the loss of 600 downtown jobs is a major blow to the city's efforts to strengthen its core.

This decision is horrible in so many ways that it's hard to know where to start.  How the hell did EPA administrator Lisa Jackson sign off on this?

  location of current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Google Earth) 

Let’s look at the facts.  The satellite image above shows the location of the current Region 7 headquarters in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.  It’s not perfect when viewed through a smart growth and sustainable communities lens, but it’s not bad.

  location of new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Google Earth)

Now consider the new location (just above), a low-rise “landscraper” of a building fronted by large parking lots outside of a suburb called Lenexa, Kansas and across the road from, among other things, a wheatfield.

Let's look at some analytical maps and data:

  amenities near current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Walk Score) 

  Abogo map of current EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Abogo)

I ran the addresses for the current and new facilities through Walk Score and Abogo, the calculator developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology that estimates carbon emissions (and household costs) from transportation by location.  Above, EPA’s current headquarters location gets a Walk Score of 62, better than 81 percent of Kansas City as a whole (see top map of the two just above).  You can see the locations of nearby amenities on the Walk Score map, which also identifies six bus transit lines within a quarter mile walk of the facility.

Abogo (the second map, just above) calculates that an average resident in the vicinity of the current EPA Region 7 headquarters emits 0.39 metric tons of carbon dioxide per month, slightly more than half the regional average of 0.74 tons per month.  Symbolically, it’s a great location for an agency that is attempting to address global warming.  All that yellow and green on the map indicates that the average transportation costs associated with residences in the area are below the regional average. 

(Abogo doesn’t directly calculate emissions and costs associated with commercial and civic facilities, but one can extrapolate that the differences between good- and poor-performing locations would be even greater because of the number of visitors associated with commercial and civic locations.)

  amenities near new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Walk Score) 

  Abogo map of new EPA Reg 7 HQ (via Abogo)

Now let’s compare the same calculations and maps for the sprawl site to which EPA intends to move.  The Walk Score is only a “car-dependent” 28.  That is not only far below that of the downtown location and the average for Kansas City sites; it is also far below the average even for the fringe suburb of Lenexa, 86 percent of whose residents are said to have a higher score.  You could see all the nearby amenities on the Walk Score map if there were any.  Sheesh. 

But, wait, it gets worse.  See all that orange and red on the Abogo map?  Abogo calculates that the transportation carbon emissions associated with the new location are a whopping 1.08 metric tons per person per month.  That’s nearly three times the average associated with the current location and one and a half times the regional average.  This is not just some random corporation making a crappy location decision:  this is the agency charged with protecting the environment for the United States of America.

(Ironically, EPA’s new regional headquarters did, in fact, recently belong to a corporation.  The agency apparently decided that, if the site was once good enough for Applebee’s corporate honchos, it’s good enough for us.)

Well, here's what the building looks like from the "street", such as it is:

  view of EPA's new Region 7 headquarters from the road (via Google Earth)

I think the parking lot between the road and the building has been enlarged since that photo was taken.

When EPA joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation in the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, I applauded them in this blog.  When the partnership issued its first-year report of achievement amidst an impressive array of actions to support local sustainability efforts, I applauded them again.  Here’s one of the six core “livability principles” that EPA pledged to uphold as a participant in the partnership:

Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities—through strategies like transit oriented, mixed-use development, and land recycling—to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.”

How’s that promise to support transit-oriented, mixed-use development and community revitalization looking now, Administrator Jackson?

As for the commitment to "safeguard rural landscapes," the area of sprawling office space where EPA will be locating is, in fact, rapidly converting agricultural land to pavement.  Directly across the road from the EPA facility is another low-rise office park whose building footprint is dwarfed by the size of surface parking built to accommodate it.  But adjacent to that property (and in the lower left quadrant of the satellite image above in this post, is this farmland:

  farmland across the road from EPA Region 7's new headquarters (via Google Earth)

And it’s not just the principles of the sustainability partnership that the agency has decided to ignore.  EPA is also thumbing its nose at a series of federal executive orders that clearly establish government policy with regard to facilities location.  In particular, on October 5, 2009 President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.”  That order makes it the policy of the United States of America for federal agencies to “reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from direct and indirect activities.”  As shown above, this move will increase those emissions, not reduce them.

More specifically with regard to the siting of federal facilities, the order establishes mechanisms to accomplish the following:

  • “Ensuring that planning for new Federal facilities or new leases includes consideration of sites that are pedestrian friendly, near existing employment centers, and accessible to public transit, and emphasizes existing central cities and, in rural communities, existing or planned town centers”
  • “The recommendations shall be consistent with principles of sustainable development including prioritizing central business district and rural town center locations, prioritizing sites well served by transit, including site design elements that ensure safe and convenient pedestrian access, consideration of transit access and proximity to housing affordable to a wide range of Federal employees, adaptive reuse or renovation of buildings, avoidance of development of sensitive land resources, and evaluation of parking management strategies.”

Silly me, I had assumed that EPA actually had something to do with drafting this order for the President to consider and sign.  Now I wonder if the agency has even bothered to read it. 

  rear view of EPA's new Region 7 headquarters (via

Admittedly, the sprawling building looks better from the rear than from the front.  But does it look like a site in a "central business district" that is "well served by transit," with "convenient pedestrian access"?  Maybe if you're a duck.   

If this matter is litigated, which I’m starting to think might not be a bad idea, could EPA’s lawyers find loopholes enabling the agency to avoid the intent of the order?  Maybe.  But the fact that the nation’s most important environmental institution would be resorting to find reasons to escape sustainability practices that both it and the nation’s chief executive have indicated are important says all we need to know about what a mockery of principle this decision is.

And that’s not the only relevant executive order, by the way.  Then-president Clinton signed Executive Order 13006, “encouraging the location of Federal facilities in our central cities.”  Then-president Carter issued Executive Order 12072, requiring federal location decisions to “conserve existing urban resources and encourage the development and redevelopment of cities” and “give first consideration to a centralized community business area and adjacent areas of similar character.”  These directives, as with President Obama’s, are still in effect.  (Even then-president Nixon issued an order to “protect and enhance the cultural environment” through historic preservation.)

Officials in Kansas City are not happy about EPA’s abandonment of downtown, as you might imagine.  Neither is former Kansas Senator and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, who helped Kansas City secure the building that now houses the Region 7 staff and was built specifically for them.  Dole, who now represents the owners of the downtown building, pointed to its importance to the city’s revitalization in an opinion column in the Kansas City Star:

“The EPA building, which remains in pristine condition, has anchored the revitalization and growth of downtown Kansas City, Kan., driving out much of the blight and crime that once plagued this community. About 550 federal government employees and 122 private employees work at Region VII headquarters.

EPA's current Region 7 HQ in downtown Kansas City (by: Walt Mountford Real Estate)“Several years ago the EPA, making a further commitment to Kansas City, Kan., located its technical laboratory a block from headquarters to facilitate operations and movement of employees between the offices . . .

“The federal government should also contemplate the effects a move will have on Kansas City, Kan. Traditionally the federal government has supported choosing urban sites for federal facilities taking into consideration the economic, social and cultural conditions, public transportation, and the economic development and employment opportunities in the area.”

Put another way, insofar as this matter is concerned Bob Dole appears to care more about urban sustainability than the Obama administration’s EPA.  (See more coverage of the opposition to EPA’s decision here, here, and here.) 

The decision to abandon the city and exacerbate suburban sprawl was ostensibly made to save money, though one might ask whose money, since employee and visitor commuting costs to the sprawl site will be substantially higher than they are now for the central location.  In any event, although the lease in the new location will be heavily discounted for the first year, over the length of the lease costs will likely be higher in the new location than they would be under a new long-term lease for the downtown property.

A second argument advanced in favor of the sprawl site is, ironically, that the former Applebee’s building is LEED-certified while the current building, which was built to then-prevailing green standards in 1998 but predates LEED, is not.  If that is the real reason, it more than anything else I have come across illustrates the perversity of LEED building standards that largely ignore the environmental consequences of location.  Research shows that transportation energy use and emissions of purportedly green buildings, when they are placed in sprawl, wipe out any benefits conferred by the technology of the buildings themselves.  I’ve written about that repeatedly

EPA’s partner in the federal sustainability partnership, HUD, has said that it is going beyond the old LEED standards and beginning to adopt the principles of location efficiency and the new-generation LEED for Neighborhood Development, which emphasizes not just internal building characteristics but also the locational context of development.  Has HUD now surpassed EPA as the federal government’s environmental leader?  I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it has.

EPA's current Region 7 HQ in downtown Kansas City (by: Walt Mountford Real Estate)Moreover, the federal Department of Energy says that the current, downtown building has plenty of green features:

"The building is situated on a brownfield site and was planned from the beginning to serve as a model for economically and environmentally sustainable building practices.

"Every aspect of this building's design, construction, operation, and maintenance was considered for sustainable applications and practices. Water conservation is achieved through native landscaping and low-flow interior fixtures. Building materials were selected for their recycled content and their contribution to a healthy indoor environment. Strategies for energy conservation range from siting decisions and the use of daylighting to efficient HVAC components."

The owner of the downtown building has said that it is willing to obtain LEED-gold certification for the building's operation and maintenance, at its own expense, within a year.

In today’s rancorous political climate, conservatives charge that the federal government’s interest in sustainability is basically a statist plot to force Americans into a lifestyle that they don’t want.  To them I say, rest easy, my friends; go back to fighting that other statist plot, decent health care for all Americans.  You have absolutely nothing to fear from this one.   

Amazingly, in this case it is by ignoring sustainability that the government may be forcing its employees into a lifestyle and increased costs that they likely do not want.  The much-heralded government interest in sustainability not only is not forcing ordinary Americans to do anything:  it isn’t even having an effect on the government’s own practices.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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Andrew WoodApr 18 2011 11:19 AM

Hello, thanks for an excellent post. Similar bad practice is evident in the UK, where public agencies including environmental ones have been consolidating onto fewer sites, and it's often the city centre sites that have been vacated, forcing staff out to suburban locations only realistically accessible by car. Obviously this is partly because they lease the city centre buildings at high rents, and out of centre locations are often much cheaper. However in many quarters, out of centre locations are perceived to actually be more accessible, because of easier road traffic and more parking space.

Anecdotally, I heard that the UK Environment Agency tried to implement a green travel scheme for its staff, and a number of senior managers failed to lead by example, and effectively scuppered the scheme, because they refused to give up their precious staff parking spaces. But don't quote me on that.

Elizabeth SchillingApr 18 2011 12:08 PM

Why, why, why?? If you get any solid information about the justification for this, I hope you will share. Horrifying as the decision is, I'd like to know whether Region 7 professes ignorance about the impact, simply didn't care, or though $$ was more important.

And where's the GSA in all of this?

Kaid @ NRDCApr 18 2011 12:18 PM

BTW, I just learned that the unified government of Kansas City and Wyandotte County has sent a letter to the White House about this and also posted a place for concerned citizens to sign an online petition to keep EPA downtown.

Beth HumstoneApr 18 2011 01:36 PM

That is pretty outrageous. Governments should know that they need to lead by example (even though they often do not). To have this come from the EPA is even worse! Thanks for posting. I am passing along to my EPA and Kansas City friends.

John DalzellApr 18 2011 02:35 PM


As always, thank you for your watchful eye!

Perhaps this is a really bad idea that can be turned around. The online patition is very quick; I am penning a letter to Jackson too.

With hope,

John Dalzell

Beth HumstoneApr 18 2011 02:37 PM

Kaid, This from a friend in Kansas City:

"the city asked the administration to investigate the decision, and the owner of the existing building lodged a formal complaint last week with the EPA Inspector General.

It sounds like there may have been some procedural irregularities in how the lease was issued.

This is a great piece, thanks."

Curt AilesApr 18 2011 02:46 PM

FANTASTIC reporting on this issue! I surfed over from streetsblog and made it through the entire post. I would say that this doesnt surprise me but this sort of garbage is becoming the status quo. The other side of the equation is that is KC would adopt some progressive transit policies, this may have never happened either. Just blows my mind.

Again, good job

Ann DaigleApr 18 2011 04:53 PM

Letters, Letters, write Letters to the EPA and the White House!

Todd AllynApr 18 2011 06:14 PM

Have any of you actually been to where the current building is located? It has done nothing to revitalize the area; instead in the last 10 years the surrounding area has become more and more blighted. (I don't think Bob Dole has visited there either because he apparently hasn't visited the same place I have.) There is no where one can walk for lunch. In spite of any model telling you otherwise - you eat in the headquarters cafeteria or you drive somewhere for lunch. And if it you did try to walk for lunch - you would be more concerned for your safety - in broad daylight - than saving the planet. I've been nervous having to park just 1.5 blocks from the building. As far as greenhouse gases per resident - keep in mind it's a calculated number. I probably wouldn't produce many either if I was unemployed or a vacant property. Commercial and civic facilities? No one is traveling to downtown Kansas City, Kansas (KCK). Especially not after dark.

Am I saying their new location is ideal? Certainly not. But you're comparing apples to oranges as there are so many factors your tools are ignoring. Are there better places they could have moved that would have meet the intent of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities? Yes. Amazingly just moving to KC, Missouri, (KCM) would give you an apples to apples comparison while eliminating many of the problems downtown KCK is faced with and EPA alone is not in a position to fix.

Comparing your original satellite photos - the Lenexa one is at a closer zoom level which eliminates all the housing - housing that EPA employees might actually buy - that is within walking distance. EPA's current staff does not, and will not, live in the vicinity of the current headquarters. This new location could, in reality, enable their staff to do much of what Executive Order 13514 intended. You are dead on that the two bulleted mechanisms are poorly served - although actually the proximity to housing affordable to a wide range of Federal employees is better served in the new location. Your assumption it will increase emissions once again is not seeing the whole picture including the school district choices these employees will make – which are closer to reality in the new location.

Is this a great decision? No. But it is nowhere near the uniformed disaster you’re painting.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 18 2011 07:27 PM

Todd, you are correct that, if one zooms out for the Lenexa image, one begins to see a patch of isolated, suburban-style, cul-de-sac housing to the west of the site (on the other side of the farmland shown in the photos).

But none of it is conveniently walkable to new EPA building. Apart from the poor connectivity of the roads, there are no sidewalks along the high-speed roads between the subdivision and the EPA site. There are also no schools within safe and convenient walking of the subdivision, though at least there is one at some driving distance away, farther to the west.

Will the new site be more appealing to a segment of employees that prefers suburban-style living? Perhaps, though there is far less total housing available close to the new site than close to the old. It would be most telling to take a poll of the employees and see what portion would prefer to move. I haven't seen one, though my instincts tell me that a majority would prefer to stay where they are.

Apart from individual preferences, it is inarguable that emissions will, in fact, go way up with the new location. That does not seem appropriate for an environmental agency.

As to whether the presence of 600 downtown jobs contributes to the revitalization of downtown, I'll defer to the city officials on that one.

Kate CorwinApr 18 2011 10:20 PM

One of the EPA’s focus areas for programming and grants is environmental justice, which they define as follows:

“Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

From an environmental justice standpoint how does the EPA justify the decision to relocate a large employment base out of a racially and economically diverse urban area?

Last summer our nonprofit (Green Works in Kansas City) placed a minority student at the EPA for a summer internship and she rode the bus from her home to the EPA headquarters. With the limited suburban bus service we have, riding the bus to and from a Lenexa location will be nearly impossible for our students. So much for environmental justice.

ScoJoApr 19 2011 02:19 AM

This is some great reporting. That's a really frustrating story to read.

Nora CharlesApr 19 2011 08:23 AM

This was not EPA's decision. It was GSA's decision.

SteveApr 19 2011 10:44 AM

I have been to the present location of the EPA building. You are wrong. There are several eating establishments within several blocks distance of the building.

Kirk WApr 19 2011 10:53 AM

Thank you for highlighting this decision. I hope there is a response soon.

Reading the comments has also been enlightening. It would be interesting for someone who lives downtown to weigh in as to whether the headquarters should move out of the city because people are "concerned for their safety." My guess is that the commenter who recommends this would not be adversely impacted by this decision, but city residents certainly would.

John HarveyApr 19 2011 11:03 AM

Todd Allyn makes a number of statements that are are simply false. I have worked in downtown KCK for over 10 years and my office is two blocks from the EPA. This Downtown has been enjoying a resurgence for a number of years. There are numerous great little cafes within walking distance of the EPA and EPA staff are often seen at lunchtime. The Downtown operates an improvement district with security ambassadors on the streets. Crime is at an all-time low and my staff and I have no concerns about walking anywhere Downtown. I have been parking my car in a public lot for 10 years with no incidents. New homes are being built right across the street from the EPA and lofts and other housing has been developing for the past 5 years. All in all, Downtown KCK is very walkable and inviting and is steadily improving. So why would the EPA move now?

David "Z"Apr 19 2011 12:00 PM

Todd Allyn, Why don't you try joining the KCK Lunch Hop. It is a group of us that "walk" to local restaurants every 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month. We have visited over 24 different local restaurants all within the downtown KCK loop over the last year, and we have many more that we still have not made it to yet.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 19 2011 12:04 PM

Friends, your perspectives are very welcome, but please keep it civil and not personal. I've had to edit some comments for tone. Thanks.

KCpunkyApr 19 2011 12:44 PM

This article is wrong on a pretty major account -- the criticism is based on the premise that EPA had a voice in the siting of the facility, which it didn't. The federal General Services Administration (GSA) is the agency responsible for siting the new facility. Bashing EPA, and especially the hardworking folks at EPA Region 7, many of whom are opposed to the move, is a pretty low blow.

A. DotteApr 19 2011 01:57 PM

What this likely is, is, at worst, a political kickback to Applebees, or at best, another corporate baliout. Applesbee's just built this huge campus and now doesn't need it because it was just bought out by IHOP. So rather then let their rich campaign contributors suffer a loss, the our elected officials will pay and us taxpayers will foot the bill.

A. DotteApr 19 2011 02:02 PM

The decision makes even less sense when you consider two other factors.

1. The EPA lab facility is staying downtown (a block or so from the old facility) so any thing needing to go to the lab will have to be driven or shipped from the suburbian location.
2. Google just picked Kansas City, Kansas out of thousands of application cities to install its new ultra-high speed internet infrastructure. The installation will undoubtedly start in the city's core where the old facility is located.

poor reportingApr 19 2011 02:15 PM

As a couple of other folks already pointed out, blaming EPA for this decision is wrongheaded, because EPA was left out of the decisionmaking process. Aim your ire at GSA rather than bringing out your pitchforks and torches and going after EPA.

HauteJujuApr 19 2011 02:40 PM

NRDC is aligning itself with a Wall Street crony capitalist . . . Did they also send a few bucks to NRDC?

[rest of comment deleted for lack of civil tone]

Kaid @ NRDCApr 19 2011 02:48 PM

EPA is free to point out that it had nothing at all to do with the decision to relocate, if that is the case. In my experience, which includes being close to several agencies making location decisions, GSA works not in isolation but with their government clients in decisionmaking.

It certainly wouldn't surprise me if many EPA employees - who do indeed work hard and well for the environment - are opposed to the move.

In any event, it is certainly fair to point out that GSA is also responsible for compliance with executive orders.

Beth HumstoneApr 19 2011 04:01 PM

This from a friend in KC, "the EPA building (current) is at the east end of the new State Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line, which is being funded by a $10.2M TIGER grant. Construction is expected to start by the end of the year with service starting in 2012." How to maximize public investment in smart growth!

Trisha ShrumApr 19 2011 04:01 PM

I've spent quite a lot of time in the neighborhood and the amenities are pretty awful... There is a YWCA coffee shop. And a gas station. And other government buildings. The presence of the EPA hasn't exactly revitalized the area as nothing much has sprung up to even meet the lunchtime needs of the employees.

But the biggest factor here that you have missed entirely is that Google just awarded Kansas City, KS with the honor of being the first and only city with fiber optic internet. For this reason, I imagine this building will not stand empty. Instead it will be much much more valuable for tech companies than it would have been for the EPA.

Plus, tech companies tend to employ younger people who are more likely to actually live in the urban areas of Kansas City, which has become increasingly more attractive and hip in recent years than in the suburbs of Kansas City. In fact, I bet that most of the people working in the EPA were commuting from the suburbs. Because of the differences in age demographics for tech companies (younger, with fewer school age kids) and the EPA (more middle aged, with more school age kids), the fact that the KCK schools are awful, and that the KC suburban schools are very good, I bet you'll see a lot less commuting and a lot more urban revitalization if the EPA leaves and tech companies come in.

I think the EPA should have found a better location than the edge of sprawl in Lenexa, but I would be willing to bet that if someone did a full analysis of this the decision would likely come out to be better for KCK, KCMo and for the environment.

J-MoApr 19 2011 04:09 PM

The client (EPA) makes demands which the GSA tanslates into criteria for their request. Had the current owner been willing to negotiate a long-term extension with EPA to include the upgradest o LEED certifiation, GSA never would have had to move the process to a competition. The lease negotiations have been an on-going matter for a number of years and only got to this point because the owners would not accommodate the EPA requests and adjust the lease to relfect market forces.

Greed is not only a vice of the hated "rich" in JoCo. Greed drives those who won't negotiate leases when hundreds of thousands of square feet are vacant across the metro. Perhaps they believed the EPA would never leave. Perhaps they misjudged their negotiating power.

I drove over to the new site this weekend. There is walkable dining less than half a mile from the facility. The JO-I bus route from Kansas City, KS goes right by the building. (20 minutes from 5th and Minnesota, current location)

Yes, the industrial/commecial zoning of that part of Lenexa is exactly the type of development to be avoided. Yes, abandoning the inner city for greenfields is ad practice and against the executive order. Yes, many EPA employees, even those who will be able to bike to the new site, are not in love with this decision.

Once all of the complaining is done, the lawsuits resolved, and the political hand- wringing finished, it will be determined that GSA and EPA complied with the law and the policies of the land. A new occupant for downtown building will be found and the owner might not have to make the improvements need to be LEED.

The word should be heard loud and clear among landlords for government agencies. Negotiate in good faith. The government will no longer be your patsy.

Karen SherrillApr 19 2011 05:28 PM

Personally, I wish you would go off on the building owner who thought they could soak GSA to recoup market losses. The bldg owner had a locked in deal for another ten years, however, they decided not to play.

How many EPA employees can walk to work at the current location. Try zero. How about biking? Another big goose egg. At least the new facility has biking trails & paths. Sure it is farther for some but also closer for others. A look at the demographics indicates it is a wash.

Not sure why the bldg owner is surprised that, in this economy, someone was the lower builder. Man up and stop whining.

Craig JohnsonApr 19 2011 06:47 PM

This story and the comments show how difficult it can be to truly move in a more sustainable direction.
If it truly was the GSA that made the decision to move as opposed to the EPA; criticizing the EPA won't accomplish anything; you have to look at the larger organization (the federal government) and at what level and how decisions are made; and have a voice and an influence there.
Several commenters have also stated few or no one who works at the current location bike or walk to work and few if anyone walks anywhere to lunch; whereas the new location may be readily accessible to many EPA workers who live in the surrounding suburbs.
The story also shows how careful we have to be with online calculators that may or may not have a real application to a specific use in a specific building.

Duran DuranApr 19 2011 08:44 PM

Sustainability is a nice goal, but at what price? If the owner of the present EPA building wouldn't negotiate for a market rate rent, and was underbid in a competitive process, should the government spend more tax dollars with $1.6 Trillion deficits, and the nations credit rating going down the tubes?

The suburban building that won the bid is an existing building designed by BNIM, an architectural firm that was heavily involved in re-building Greensburg Kanas, sustainably,

On the other hand, maybe the GSA screwed up the bid reviews.. That wouldn't be the first time that office of the GSA has messed up a real estate deal!

Environmental EngineerApr 19 2011 09:56 PM

Let's get in a few more actual facts about this move. Yes, it will involve nearly 600 jobs, most of them currently held by people who do not live in Kansas City, Kansas, and commute to work from outside Wyandotte County.

The actual commuting distance and time for a number of these people, myself included, will decrease substantially. I personally will save 15 miles per day following the move. The ones who van pool from Lawrence will certainly enjoy their much shorter commute. Agreed, some will travel farther, and I have not seen evidence that the move will result in either a net increase or decrease in average commute miles.

Mass transit service barely exists for the present location either, as evidenced by the number of personal autos in the parking structure, mostly from Johnson County or Missouri. Very few from Wyandotte County. There is a bus stop on the southeast corner of the present site, but the "service" available from it matches neither the hours nor the present origins/destinations of the majority of the EPA employees.

Yes the lab is staying put. But since few of the samples analyzed at the lab originate at the regional office, they will continue to be shipped or transported to the lab from the same areas in the four state region from which they now are shipped or transported.

The immediate area around the present building consists of impervious parking and streets. The immediate area around the new site includes vegetated wetlands specifically designed to accept and treat runoff not only from the building and its parking lot, but from much of the adjacent street area as well.

And once again, the lease was negotiated by GSA after they solicited competitive proposals from many owners, present site owner included. EPA provided their requirements but had no say in which offer was accepted.

Jim WernerApr 19 2011 10:32 PM

I greatly appreciated your blog-post about the EPA Regional HQ building In KC. It deserves to be read, nee savored, with the same thoughtful care with which it was compiled.

As you may know, I served from 2002-2005 as the Missouri state Division Director for Air & Land Protection and attended many meetings In the KCK building. It was a pretty "green" building and many EPA staff was proud of it. The RA (Jim Gulliford) and DRA (Bill Rice) at the time were also duly proud of the building and its location, and I am mystified about why they felt a need to move. There is a lot of pressure from developers in Johnson County (KS) and a HUGE interstate highway running west from KCK/KCMO. I could only speculate that these developers exerted any pressure. I would imagine more realistically, it was some bright bureaucrat under enormous pressure to come up with ways to cut budgets without cutting staff or programs, found that real estate is cheaper in a cow pasture (if your ignore the externalities). This bureaucrat is not an environmental scientist but a budget manager, and feels like any penny he or she can pinch is an extra penny for the program staff to save the planet. I don’t blame them personally, and, respectfully I don’t think it is fair to blame Administrator Jackson who has enormous fish to fry every day, most with larger and faster teeth than any of us will ever know. I cannot imagine this issue ever came up on here agenda, and if it did her chief of staff and scheduler should be replaced. [I also realize as an advocate, it is useful to personified bad decisions with a single person responsible. If you really go after that one person and succeed in changing her agenda to focus on this one bad decision, you will have failed to correct the larger management system that allowed it to happen] If one were to dissect the EPA move decision, I wonder of the list of approval signatures goes back more than two years.

Certainly I think this is a terrible move and should be reversed, if possible. The bigger issue, however, that such integrated sustainability thinking is not inculcated at every level of every bureaucracy, public and private alike, not just EPA. And bureaucracies should not require a baby sitter to catch them at the end of the process after all of the legal agreements have been signed, after all the budget reductions have been spent backfilling some programs cut and after all the bad judgments were made along every step of the way, and an nobody had the courage or were encourage to say, "no.” . We need bureaucracies to think in terms of environmental sustainability not just as an end of the pipe solution, ensure by going down a check list of media specific compliance laws enacted in the 1970s. We need bureaucracies filled with people who regard their decisions as vital ways to nurture communities, save open space, water sheds, reduce dependence on gasoline, and give people good jobs renovating what needs to be fixed, not abandoning it for the next shiny new thing down the road.

Aside from the smart growth location in a somewhat dense area of town, it is close to the KCMO side of town and provided easy access to people on both sides of the river. It also made it easy for support staff to commute there, not out in the suburbs, which require cars to get to work. The KCK side is a fairly sterile part of town, but the KCMO side is a vibrant urban area I urge you to visit (See the Steamship Arabia, farmers market and the "Country Club Plaza" parts of town.) There are young people risking their meager savings and working long hours to open coffee shops, and surprising shops with clever, new and fun ways to separate you for your hard-earned money and come home with something beautiful or inspiring. One might balance the stupid decisions to spend our tax money with some effort to celebrate the people who are making extraordinary efforts to nurture smart growth in Kansas City. Andrew Bracker, of KCMO, has worked for years to encourage brownfields development in a way that is safe and builds healthy communities Andrew is a Harvard Law School educated lawyer who might make more in a fancy law firm or corporation, but fell in love with a Kansas City girl and her town. Nearly ten years ago, the Brooking Institute publish a report on sprawl problems in Missouri, entitled, “Growth in the Heartland”
With classic Brooking cool data graphics, it told the story of the classic hollow donut growth patterns we see repeated around the US, and aided and abetted too often by myopic decisions, it appears, like the EPA RegVII HQ move. I would hope that if the report were to be updated ten years on, it might include Andrew's efforts in KCMO, and those of Dr. Ian Thomas of Columbia, MO. Ian was (is?) a brilliant theoretical physicist who dropped out of a promising academic career to devote himself to “PedNet”. This little non-profit was for years simply Ian working his heart out with a few other volunteers to encourage safe biking and pedestrian-friendly development. Now, he has a full-time staff, and Columbia is a highly desirable location for people to move to because of his contributions to the quality of life there. Ian is an overnight success in only 15years of hard work. Looking only at EPA and the sprawling donut can lead to anger and despair. Looking at Andrew and Ian, however, is inspiring, and can make some of us who live on the coast to be humble in presuming to judge the “fly over” people who are doing some great things and largely don’t care what others think, but may smack their foreheads occasionally, at those who look only at the stupid growth, and fail to nurture and celebrate the efforts at smart growth that others may use as a model.

Again, thanks for telling the story of the EPA Region VII building, which is a good choice for shining a light on missed opportunities, perhaps before it is too late.

Best regards,

big buzzApr 19 2011 11:03 PM

Check out the rest of the herd - a Policy Manager Smart Growth America
Nonprofit; Public Policy industry? You don't have any connection to the Kansas City area or the issues we face. If you love the KCK area so much and are so "horrified" - get out of the beltway and move here. Put your money where your mouth is instead of expecting average taxpayers 1500 miles away to do it.

Kim BodenApr 19 2011 11:07 PM

Clearly the only wheat Mr. Benfield can identify from DC is the shredded
version in his cereal box. He should really try to find out some facts
before pontificating and pointing the finger at EPA.

While his intentions are good regarding sprawl (I'm certain no one in
EPA wants to contribute to it either), Mr. Benfield has no understanding
of what contributed to this result in KC.

The fact that Dole is representing EPA's current landlord ought to tell
him something. The only people Dole is worried about are his friends in
high places and the green in their pockets. The root-cause of this
whole situation is that Dole got it written into legislation in the
1980's that the EPA Region 7 office had to reside in Kansas. Because of
that, all of the urban core properties on the Missouri side were not
options. That then meant that the current EPA building was the
only-game in town, or so the current landlord and KC, KS mayor thought.

The current landlord bought the property while the market was up.
Ooops. They thought they had the government cornered and tried to
fleece the US taxpayer. They refused to negotiate a fair deal. The
ball was in their court, several times. They wanted the US government
and taxpayers to bail them out and subsidize their bad business
decisions. Sorry.

When the current landlord wouldn't provide a fair-market price, it was
taken out of EPA's hands and put solely in those of the General Services
Administration which procures all leases for federal agencies. Really
Mr. Benfield, you thought this was EPA's decision? That's where you
lost all credibility.

Besides all that, Mr. Benfield's blog is wrought with errors. If you
want to garner support, you have to be credible.

The quote regarding the "current downtown" building is about the
laboratory and not the regional office. Which by the way, is not still
"pristine". Ask the rats.

KC "transit rich". Please. It takes 50 minutes including a transfer to
go from midtown KC, MO to the current EPA office on a bus. That's even
if there is a route available.

KC, KS "amenities". There are none. There have been zero improvements
or revitilization to downtown KC, KS in the last 22 years that EPA has
been there. Well, unless you include the EPA building and the hotel
that only EPA visitors patronize because there are no safe dining or
entertainment options for visitors. Actually, KCK may be better off in
the long run if a private corporation moves in to replace EPA. At least
then, a private corporation would have the resources and leeway to
support surrounding businesses through greater business traffic,
dining...not something that typically happens in the government sector.

And carbon emissions tripling...that's just made up. The fact is, more
EPA employees will now live closer to the office and drive fewer miles,
or actually bike to work because of the outstanding stream trail system
that goes right by the new office.

HauteJujuApr 19 2011 11:45 PM

Didn't think my previous comments were uncivil at all, but let me try again. Reading other comments here, I see that big buzz has done his/her research and discovered a lot of professional grant writers and professional east coast urbanists deriding a competitive bid process resulting in lower costs to the government just because the winning bid is in the "gasp" suburbs.

One reason that the owner of the current building couldn't compete may be that the original construction was subsidized by 20 years of county tax abatement on top of a lot cost of $1. Being the third or fourht Wall Street firm to own the building they bought the property with those tax benefits already built in. The county has nothing more it can give away to Wall Street on this property.

I also agree with Trisha Shrum that in the long run, KCK would be better off with commercial start ups as tenents for that building. Some young blood who would consider actually living in the community and spending their money there. The EPA crowd are known to be tight fisted with THEIR money and are really getting long in the tooth. The fire department down the street hauled out another one with heart problems.

Finally, who knows maybe Duran Duran is on to something with the comment about GSA incompetence fouling up the analysis of the bids.

Barbara WhitesideApr 20 2011 02:19 AM

I believe the General Services Administration follows specific procurement guidelines that include technical specifications as well as a cost factor. Do we know whether the owner of the building EPA currently occupies in KCK submitted a bid that met technical specifications and proposed a competitive cost? If the proposal met technical specifications and the cost proposal was equal to or less than that of the winner of the contract, we have a strong case for protesting. If the winner of the contract submitted far more attractive technical and cost proposals, the other factors being discussed here probably don't carry enough weight to warrant awarding the contract to the owner of the property EPA currently occupies.

Mandy StarkApr 20 2011 09:52 AM

I'd like to add that Lenexa's not the “wasteful” suburb that people seem to be making it out to be.

We have a nationally recognized, award-winning stormwater management program that centers its efforts on green infrastructure and LID in new and redevelopment. We have a commitment to sustainability, from our high standards in building codes to large amount of parks and trails and even participation in programs such as MetroGreen and Operation Greenlight to increase biking and walking opportunities and reduce vehicle emissions from idling.

Lenexa is recognized as a regional leader in sustainability, often taking steps before other communities in the KC Metro do so. Those are just a few examples, but believe you me, Lenexa is not a typical suburb, nor does it deserve the criticism it received: “one of the worst examples of suburban sprawl.”

Otavio SilvaApr 20 2011 10:58 AM

For full disclosure, I am a Lenexa resident! The GSA is the agency who is responsible for the USEPA Region 7's building leasing agreement. It seems that GSA and the landlord could not agree on the financial terms of the lease agreement.. And, also appears, the landlord did not think GSA would really move the EPA Regional Heaquarter after shopping around for better rental fees. It is naive to believe one could gamble with such important contract (office space availability in the metro area is very high). and, then complain after the tenant leaves.

Otavio SilvaApr 20 2011 11:10 AM

Correcting a typo and the last sentence that was cut out....For full disclosure, I am a Lenexa resident! The GSA is the agency who is responsible for the USEPA Region 7's building leasing agreement. It seems that GSA and the landlord could not agree on the financial terms of the lease agreement.. And, also appears, the landlord did not think GSA would really move the EPA Regional Headquarters after shopping around for better rental fees. It is naive to believe one could gamble with such important contract (office space availability in the metro area is very high) and, then complain after the tenant leaves. All said and done, I still think it was a bad decision for all parties.

Building Move HangoverApr 20 2011 04:19 PM

Many of you may not be aware, but his process has been going on for a lot longer than the last couple of weeks. It seems as though Bob Dole's artilce sparked a lot of interest and rage, and I hope people noted that he has a special interest in the buildings owners. It would have been nice if people had started voicing these concerns before the procurement process ended.

For a full disclosure, I am an EPA employee who lives on the opposite side of town from Lenexa. I did not want to move for the obvious reasons. But how can the building owner justify jacking up the prices that had already been agreed upon. The truth is, had the owners stuck to the agreed upon costs originally established, then we probably wouldn't be moving.

Failure to put this solicitation back on the open market would have opened a door for the government that it might not have been able to shut. All government contractors would think that they could just jack up prices and the government would fold and pay the higher prices. Seems fair to the taxpayers.

What will happen now? EPA employees who live in the south part of the KC area will be happy and their commute will decrease. People who live up north, well, the will do one of three things: 1 - move down south, which is what my wife and I plan to do; 2 - join one of the van pools, or form new van pools that will head from north to south; or 3 - drive everyday or telework more. My guess is most people will be in the top 2 choices, and the effects on the environment will be limited. But who knows.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 21 2011 08:33 AM

Way to duck: I investigated the facts and have reason to believe that EPA participated in the decision. I have said so. If that is not the case, I would like to hear it from EPA, not just from commenters on the blog. Speaking of ducking, how about signing your real name?

Some additional thoughts:

If, as many assert, the downtown landlord was "gouging" the federal government and failing to negotiate in good faith, that needs to be backed up with facts. The facts that have been reported suggest that the long-term cost to the government for the two buildings would be roughly equivalent. If that is the case, I would certainly expect the intent of the executive orders to be followed.

Even if there were a small financial benefit in favor of the sprawl site, I would still expect the executive orders to be followed. If GSA and EPA do not believe the executive orders apply in this case, the burden is on them to explain why.

Some have pointed out that Lenexa has a lot going for it as a suburb. I have no reason to doubt that, and in fact I am aware of good things the town has done with respect to stormwater runoff. The problem in this case is not with Lenexa, but with a site on the fringe of Lenexa that is the opposite of everything the EPA says it stands for. If EPA and GSA had elected to build a facility in the center of Lenexa rather than on its fringe, my argument would be weaker. Instead, they chose sprawl.

From an environmental viewpoint, would the location be even better if it were in downtown KCMO rather than KCK? Probably. Unfortunately, that is not the choice we have been presented with here.

Finally, the argument that the Applebee's building is superior environmentally is factual only if one looks exclusively inside the building and not on the totality of facts including the two locations. That is a failure to consider all environmental impacts as well as a violation of the executive orders.

Jim NoonanApr 21 2011 08:59 AM

Not knowing the area I am not going to comment on the specifics of this site decision. I would observe however, that the article and the responses to it are iluustrative of the uphill fight smart growth has to face. It appears that though the suburban location identified here has few walkable or other amenities, that the urban ste suffers from the same malady. There are more amenities, but not enough more to overcome an inherent bias to suburban, auto oriented locations for most people.

Looking at the urban site itself,it appears ver suburban in form. If one turns away from the EPA bulding one is faced with a complete city block of surface parking. The impression is of a site that in fact is not urban enough. there isn't enough congestion or foot traffic to give the feel of a vibrant urban center, no matter the facts of the place.

The bottom line? An urban smart growth site has a much higher bar to meet to make people satisfied. Most are perfectly happy to commute to abuilding and never leave it until the workday is done and then travel back to their suburban homes. If that is all we offer in a city center than we will fail to compete with the ease of convenience and visual attractivenesss of a well designed storm water pond.

As for this decision, it remains a shame that EPA / GSA can't develop the imagination or perseverence necessary to anchor a downtown area.

RickApr 21 2011 01:06 PM

Great article! I'm writing my note to the prez right now!

Worth RepostingApr 22 2011 01:01 AM

Karen Sherrill posted the following comment above, and it was so spot on, I'm reposting below. By now it should be obvious that this Kaid Benfield guy from DC was intent on writing a blog piece smearing EPA he didn't bother to do his homework. Who knows what his motive is, but it clearly isn't reporting facts.

Here's Ms. Sherrill's post:

"Personally, I wish you would go off on the building owner who thought they could soak GSA to recoup market losses. The bldg owner had a locked in deal for another ten years, however, they decided not to play.

How many EPA employees can walk to work at the current location. Try zero. How about biking? Another big goose egg. At least the new facility has biking trails & paths. Sure it is farther for some but also closer for others. A look at the demographics indicates it is a wash.

Not sure why the bldg owner is surprised that, in this economy, someone was the lower builder. Man up and stop whining."

Comments are closed for this post.


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