Taxpayers no longer have to wonder how their money has been spent at the newly renovated headquarters at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Mick Mulvaney, the CFPB’s acting director, graciously allowed The Daily Caller News Foundation to take an exclusive tour on Feb. 1 of the federal office — founded by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — that has been widely criticized for cost overruns and extravagance.
A June 2014 Inspector General report concluded there was “no sound basis” for the agency’s renovation cost estimates. Shortly thereafter, the contracting for the building was transferred from the bureau to the General Services Administration, that oversaw the current renovation.
Martin Michalosky, the bureau’s chief administrative officer, escorted TheDCNF on the tour. He was helpful and courteous as this DCNF reporter walked through the six stories of the building that sits across the street from the White House.
The first thing that stands out is that the office space does not feel like a government building at all. It could be an upscale hotel, a college campus or a corporate headquarters.
“There was interest to move this above a Class C Building,” said a CFPB source familiar with the renovation and the operation of the building. “Now it’s a Class A building,” he told TheDCNF.
The Building Owners and Managers Association International, which represents owners and managers of all commercial office buildings, describe Class A buildings as “the most coveted buildings in the marketplace.”
The $124 million spent to date for the 303,000 square foot office building is $409 per square foot, more than Trump World Tower, which cost $334 per square foot or Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel and Casino, priced at $330 per square foot.
It’s also double the $227.64 per square foot construction costs for “Class 1 – Best Quality” of masonry or concrete government buildings as reported in the 2018 National Building Cost Manual, the Bible for construction cost projections.
The new CFPB headquarters areas are very comfortable. The foyer feels like an inviting hotel lobby.
Each floor boasts a special “open space” with lounge chairs and sofas for CFPB employees.
There also are 29 small conference rooms throughout the headquarters — branded as “collaboration rooms.” There also are 25 medium-to-large conference rooms.
The food pantries sport stainless steel appliances. The sixth floor includes a commercial grade refrigerator.
CFPB currently has under construction a 2,660 square foot athletic facility for all of its employees free of charge. The staff also will enjoy 1,300 square foot gender specific locker rooms equipped with showers. Employees must bring their own towels.
“There is no fee to employees,” the CFPB source explained to TheDCNF, quickly adding, “It’s open to CFPB employees only.” The athletic center “will have a combination of tread mills, bicycles, free weights, something similar to a Nautilus and other typical equipment.”
The free gym offering stands in contrast to the White House Athletic Center, which during many administrations has charged employees $18.50 per pay period. Contractors, workers on government detail and General Services Administration employees can access the gym for $40.25 month, and guests can use it for $6 per day. Even interns have to pay $20.86 per month.
The restrooms — which CFPB prohibited TheDCNF to photograph — look more like a high-end restroom in a “W” Hotel rather than at a government facility.
The bureau’s rooftop seating offers the agency’s employees beautiful vistas of Washington’s skyline including the White House Eisenhower Executive Building and the Washington Monument.
As employees sit in the upscale outdoor rooftop furniture, those who are concerned about skin cancer also can take advantage of using premium, adjustable motorized cantilever umbrellas that can provide shade for up to eight people.
Want to stand in your workspace? You’re in luck! Each CFPB office table is electrically motorized with height adjustments.
“All of our desks, workstations and offices are height adjustable so people have option to either stand or sit or adjust it to the proper height,” explained a CFPB source. “We did purchase those across the board, but I don’t know how that compares to the rest of the government,” the spokesman confessed.
So how much more do motorized height adjusted tables cost? The answer: a lot. Mark Fuqua, a principal at Maryland Commercial, that sells the height adjustable tables to commercial offices, broke down the costs of a motorized desk to TheDCNF.
“A non-powered desk is about $150 to $200 range,” he told TheDCNF in an interview. “So it adds about $350 if it didn’t move, costing about $550 per table.”
What’s the difference for taxpayers? The new CFPB headquarters is supposed to house 1,300 employees. A conventional table for all of its employees cost taxpayers between $195,000 to $260,000.
A height adjustable table costs taxpayers $715,000.
The newly renovated CFPB also sports a library — something the old CFPB didn’t have.
There are no desk or tables to read in the library and the bookshelves are largely empty. The only furniture is a sofa and lounge chairs.
A CFPB source informed TheDCNF the bureau needed a library because there were reference materials that weren’t online. “There still are some physical aspects of printed materials like the CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations) — a variety of other reference material — that is better to have in book form or are only available in book,” the source told TheDCNF.
TheDCNF went online and discovered there is a digital form of the CFR, called “e-CFR.”
The CFPB source explained that in the old building, the original space where the library now exists “was an open gathering location where people would come here and read newspapers and read materials.”
A potentially controversial aspect of the CFPB renovation is the bureau’s plans for overhauling a public area next door, called “Liberty Plaza.”
Liberty Plaza previously had an ice skating rink that was a popular winter spot for Washingtonians.
The agency budgeted $329,000 to overhaul the plaza, excluding the ice skating rink. Instead, CFPB planners included two “water features,” and a shallow pool. One of the water features will capture rain water for reclamation. CFPB officials were particularly excited about the rain water feature.
“One of the things that is part of renovating our building is some energy efficiency also some gray water and rain water collection,” the CFPB source said. “So we collect rain water from the roof, we collect from the plaza area and we recycle that and use it basically in our toilets and as well as in our water fountains.”
The source defended the water features and said the bureau were “obligated” to include them because of “requirements as part of the historical preservation society, Commission of Fine Arts and the D.C. equivalent of that.”
However, Carlton Hart, an urban planner with the National Capital Planning Commission, which approved the plaza design, disputed the idea the CFPB water features were mandated.
“There really weren’t any water features” in the original plaza, except for the winter skating rink, Hart told TheDCNF in an interview. He called the fountains and pool “a new feature.”
There also were a number of costly features in the original renovation plan that CFPB eventually dropped.
The cancelled features included a $1.1 million rooftop playground that required eight-foot walls and an extension of an elevator to the roof. A proposed “green roof” was eliminated although it will still capture rain water. A “living green wall” on the plaza also was eliminated.
Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican and chairman of the House financial subcommittee on housing and insurance, is a frequent critic of the agency. “The ridiculous office amenities offer further proof that the agency under Richard Cordray’s leadership showed no regard for fiscal restraint,” Duffy told TheDCNF after learning of the CFPB’s tour said. “This is exactly why the CFPB needs oversight, and why I personally request a tour of the agency.”
Andrew Kerr contributed to this report.
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