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Designers pitch plans to upgrade the Ellipse

Planning panel solicits five proposals

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Kildaire family flew thousands of miles to Washington from their home just outside Cape Town, South Africa, and though they conquered numerous museums and successfully navigated the Metro system, when it came time to see the White House, the well-traveled foursome was perplexed.

"It's very secluded. It's quite hidden away," Clint Kildaire said Tuesday afternoon while he took a break in the shade in President's Park South with his wife and two sons. "We had to ask for help finding it."

The National Capital Planning Commission is focused on making the open space adjacent to the White House more complementary to the landmark itself without sacrificing national security. On Tuesday, the commission presented the top five project designs from a nationwide search to find the best way to accomplish that goal.

While the commission is aware that the final decision still lies with the National Park Service and U.S. Secret Service, the commission's director of physical planning, Bill Dowd, said the five designers were asked "to come up with good ideas to handle security in a nice way that allows people to access the park, to enjoy the park and not be overwhelmed by temporary security barriers."

Another challenge is to beautify the area around E Street Northwest, which has been closed since Sept. 11, 2001, and blocked with thick cement Jersey barriers and bollards linked by chains.

Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, said his agency recognizes "the temporary road and pedestrian closures are unsightly," but is working with the National Park Service and planning commission to come up with a "durable, aesthetic security plan."

Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio in San Francisco presented his firm's plans alongside old black-and-white photographs of an older President's Park.

He spoke about "trying to blur the distance" between the two halves of the area separated by E Street and his interest in "taking some of the existing features" and using them to beautify the area, such as putting lights in some of the bollards.

Design companies Sasaki Associates Inc. and Reed Hilderbrand Associates Inc. had different visions in mind for the park, which includes Sherman Park, First Division Monument and the Ellipse.

Gary Hilderbrand focused on a park designed around a promenade where walkers and cyclists could meander under the shade and sunlight, where roughly 260 pass-holder parking spots once sat, while Alan Ward of Sasaki envisioned a plaza that could be a "major new civic gathering space."

Mina Wright, the director of the Office of Planning & Design Quality for the Public Buildings Service, asked, "If this is the front yard, where is the front gate?" Mr. Hilderbrand said that the goal for his design was to make the park's entrance "porous," to ensure that "everyone gets the feeling this is the people's space."

The planning commission will announce on Thursday which firm's design it plans to endorse.

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