The Roanoker - September/October 2014 - 53
THE $14 MILLION Richard H. Poff Federal Building
was heralded as part of Roanoke's "new era" in the inaugural issue of The Roanoker in the fall of 1974.
A photo of the under-construction, 14-story tower
ran alongside a cover-story essay by Founder/Publisher
Richard Wells that cited the new federal building as part
of downtown Roanoke's reinvention.
Today, the structure has become a different kind of
symbol: One of governmental waste, malpractice and
"It's a slap in the face of the taxpayers," says 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte.
The Poff Federal Building was selected for a $51 million renovation project funded through the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known
as the federal stimulus.
But through a mix of mind-bogglingly bad (and allegedly illegal) bid management, cost overruns and allaround poor planning, the project cost has escalated to
more than $80 million.
As the renovation limps to its conclusion, all tenants
have returned: U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Marshal
Service, U.S. Attorneys' office, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Veterans Administration.
Court officials, though, say renovation work has not
only not improved their working conditions, but it's
actually decreased functionality and security. The elevator still malfunctions. The renovation plan didn't take
security into consideration, despite protests from people
who work in the building, especially in federal court.
Because of the renovations, the formerly bulletproof entrance to judges chambers was replaced by a
glass door and security cameras in the hallways were
rendered useless due to technical compatibility issues.
Jury members must leave through the courtroom, often
right past defendant and his or her family and friends.
Similarly, the only grand jury room entrance involves
walking through a private lobby, often filled with witnesses, targets and their friends.
In June, Glen Conrad, chief judge for the U.S. district
court's western district, told a congressional subcommittee that security hadn't been enhanced and in fact
was diminished in some cases.
"For me, the most bothersome and disturbing reality is that five years from announcement of the Poff
Stimulus Project, and after expenditure of millions of
dollars, the user functionality in the court portion of
the building has not been enhanced whatsoever, in any
way, shape, or form," Conrad said.
HOW DID THIS well-meaning project, designed to
update the building and make it more energy-efficient,
go so horribly wrong?
The problems started with the stimulus bill itself,
passed in February 2009. Designed to alleviate the national recession of 2008 and 2009, the bill funded socalled "shovel-ready" projects and provided budgetary
support for state governments. The GSA, the agency
responsible for most of the country's federal buildings,
was awarded 273 stimulus projects worth $5.2 billion.
David Ehrenwerth, the GSA's regional administrator,
told Congress in 2011 the Poff Building was selected
because it was "an under-performing asset."
"Our building surveys and studies show that significant reinvestment is needed to repair this aging building," Ehrenwerth said. "The Recovery Act provided us
with the opportunity to invest the funds necessary to
update the building systems and features with highperformance ones" such as energy-efficient walls, an
electricity-generating solar system on the roof, and new
lighting and mechanical systems.
The flash nature of the funding, however, meant that
the GSA rushed the process.
"They did this in a hurried fashion to try and spend
money to stimulate the economy," says Goodlatte, who
sparked scrutiny of the project in 2010 when he publicly
called for a halt to the work. "They took a project that
shouldn't have been treated this way. Suddenly, from the
GSA's budget perspective, they had free money. They
decided they could do this very quickly and that they
could do it with money that wasn't in their budget."
The GSA based its cost estimates on a feasibility study
instead of an independent government agency, which
violated the Federal Acquisition Regulation, according
to a 2010 report from the Office of Inspector General.
It also shrugged off questions as to whether the government should just tear down the building and start
fresh. Ehrenwerth argued that constructing a new
building would cost twice as much as renovating the
old. But the GSA didn't conduct a cost/benefit analysis
of whether to renovate or start from scratch until after
the bid was awarded.
GSA spokeswoman Gina Blyther Gilliam: "Options
included selling to a private developer, who would perform renovations and lease back space, or construction
of a new facility that would suit the needs of both the
Courts and the Department of Veterans Affairs. That
COURT OFFICIALS, THOUGH, SAY
RENOVATION WORK HAS NOT ONLY NOT
IMPROVED THEIR WORKING CONDITIONS,
BUT IT'S ACTUALLY DECREASED
FUNCTIONALITY AND SECURITY.