When the Applebee's restaurant chain needed a new corporate headquarters, it settled on the Kansas City suburb of Lenexa, Kan., where shopping malls and cul-de-sacs have sprouted up over the past few decades on what used to be farmland.
The office parks of Johnson County, which is sometimes called "the Orange County of the Midwest," are now home to companies such as telecom giant Sprint Nextel Corp., which has its world headquarters just a few miles down the highway in Overland Park.
And the newest tenant could soon be U.S. EPA, which is planning to move its Region 7 headquarters from Kansas City, Kan., to Lenexa next year. Earlier this month, the administration signed a lease to move more than 500 of the EPA regional office's employees to the Applebee's building, which was emptied out and sold after the company changed hands.
That plan has rankled the government of Kansas City, which is losing a major employer, as well as advocates of "smart growth," who argue that EPA isn't practicing what it preaches.
They say the decision runs counter to the goals of the Obama administration's "livable communities" initiative, run by EPA, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program is based on the idea that denser populations and more mass transit lead to less pollution and less need for sprawling suburban developments on the untouched land outside cities.
"[The lease] is totally inconsistent with what the national office has been saying and doing," said Kaid Benfield, director of the smart growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. "EPA has been a government leader in thinking about sustainability and the importance of cities in relation to environmental issues. For some reason, in this particular case, all of that was apparently disregarded."
With about 650 employees, EPA's Region 7 office oversees federal environmental programs in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Chris Whitley, a Region 7 spokesman, referred questions to the General Services Administration, saying that EPA is "simply the tenant" and did not choose the new headquarters.
Charlie Cook, a spokesman for GSA, said the decision was purely a matter of economics. When lease negotiations began, the government was not looking for a new location, but it would have been "irresponsible" to take any of the offers made by the owners of the current building, he said.
"We're the stewards of federal tax dollars, and we can't just sign a lease based on what's popular with some," Cook said. "We have to stick to our principles."
The decision has received backlash from Kansas City Mayor Joe Reardon and former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, who now represents the owners of EPA's current office building as an attorney at Alston & Bird LLP. As a Kansas senator, Dole helped orchestrate the regional office's move across the Missouri River from Kansas City, Mo.
In a letter sent to the White House last week, Reardon asked for an investigation of the new lease, saying that EPA's office has been "a vital factor" in the redevelopment of his downtown. He said the lease seems to go against an executive order that tells federal agencies to put their offices in city centers whenever possible so they are more accessible and help revive struggling urban areas.
The current headquarters, which was custom-built by EPA in 1999, was a model of that concept. Before the complex was built, the plot of land was home to a closed-down strip club and a dilapidated hotel, said Doug Bach, deputy administrator of the unified government that runs Kansas City and Wyandotte County, Kan.
Just last year, the Obama administration gave $10.3 million for public transit upgrades along State Avenue, which runs through the heart of Kansas City. One of the new bus stops was supposed to be in front of EPA's office building. These efforts have caused new townhouses and office buildings to multiply in the neighborhood in recent years, he said.
"Had it not been for the federal government's desire to invest in the area and stimulate the area, I don't think we ever would have seen that last," he said.
'We have to stick to our principles'
Up until recently, it seemed clear that EPA would be staying in Kansas City for a while.
About seven years ago, the agency added a science and technology laboratory about a block from the current headquarters. The lease on the laboratory runs through 2023, meaning that about 50 employees will be staying downtown for the foreseeable future.
Kansas City officials say that having two offices 20 miles apart will force employees to commute between them, wasting time and gasoline. Critics also say that moving more than 500 employees about 20 miles south into the suburbs will cause employees to drive more miles, though the new location will be closer for some employees, such as Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks, who lives in Lawrence, Kan.
EPA should keep its headquarters downtown "as an example of the federal government's commitment to redevelop brownfields in the urban core of America's cities," Reardon wrote in his letter to the White House.
Under the new lease, the government will pay about $6.55 per square foot for 187,000 square feet of office space next year. The price would increase to $27.75 a square foot after the first year and rise to $32.66 by the 10th and final year of the lease.
While that is more than the lease on the downtown Kansas City building, which was about $30 per square foot for 200,000 square feet, GSA and the owners of the downtown building have not released details of the competing offers for the next 10 years.
The new complex, which is just a stone's throw away from a farm, will also be more energy efficient than the current facility, Cook said. The lease requires the Applebee's building to get a gold certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's standard for new buildings, as well as a platinum certification for operations and maintenance.
That is little consolation to smart growth advocates, who say the features on a building are not the only factor that decides its energy use. Buildings in the suburbs usually require people to drive more miles, and EPA itself has shown that the extra gasoline used is enough to wipe out any energy savings that a highly rated building would have because of its technology, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Benfield said.
"What we have called 'green' traditionally has not taken into account all of the environmental elements that are associated with a particular building," he said. "You can get a platinum certification for a building in a corn field -- or in this case, a wheat field."