- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

A National Capital Planning Commission panel yesterday approved a design for creating a pedestrian thoroughfare along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House featuring green shrubs, stone benches and security checkpoints.

The NCPC's Interagency Security Task Force, whose decision must be approved by Congress and President Bush, recommended awarding the design contract to Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of New York after having reviewed designs from four firms.

The design, which the NCPC aims to have implemented by the 2005 presidential inauguration, would keep Pennsylvania Avenue closed between 15th and 17th streets NW with permanent bollards to block vehicular traffic. However, the landscaping plan includes a small road for a "circulator" bus service that would operate under the Secret Service's supervision.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Anthony A. Williams said they will not support any plan that calls for the permanent closure of Pennsylvania Avenue, informally dubbed "America's Main Street." Both city leaders have complained about the economic impact of closing the street and the unsightly barriers that line the roadway.

"They can't move a brick without coming before Congress first," said Mrs. Norton, the District's nonvoting congressional representative. "Congress believes the avenue should be opened as soon as possible."

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mr. Williams, said city officials and residents "want the road opened."

"The District lost 30,000 trips per day when the road was closed," Mr. Bullock said.

Task force chairman Richard Friedman said the Van Valkenburgh design is the simplest and received the most support from a team of consultants that included representatives from the Secret Service, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the D.C. Division of Transportation.

The project is estimated to cost $10 million, but no funds have been appropriated for it. The NCPC and the Secret Service are expected to approve the plan by the end of this year, and Congress is expected to vote on the plan next year.

"Simplicity was a factor. [The Van Valkenburgh design] allows the construction to be flexible for security changes," Mr. Friedman said.

The design would turn much of Lafayette Square into a large pedestrian mall and create a $26 million circulator bus service to move tourists, commuters and workers through the area. It also would allow Pennsylvania Avenue to be reopened easily in the future.

Mrs. Norton said the circulator bus route was "the most outstanding part of the proposal."

Mr. Bullock said, if the Secret Service decides to close the street indefinitely, "the mayor would like to see the Valkenburgh plan done" to replace the Jersey barriers and prison-like security fixtures that now line Pennsylvania Avenue.

"But what we don't want is for this to be used as an excuse to keep the street permanently closed," Mr. Bullock said.

Former President Bill Clinton ordered the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House closed a month after the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At the time, the avenue handled 29,000 vehicles a day.

The Secret Service, which had been urging the road closure since the Truman presidency, says Pennsylvania Avenue must remain closed because of the threat of a truck bomb similar to the one used in Oklahoma City.

The NCPC task force voted in November to keep Pennsylvania Avenue closed while it conducted a $1.5 million study to determine whether a tunnel could be built under the street.

"What we've come to is that a short tunnel inside 15th and 17th streets won't work," Mr. Friedman said, adding that a tunnel is still an option.

Mrs. Norton said the jury is still out on the tunnel idea. But she urged the Secret Service to open another badly needed east-west route through that section of downtown. "There is a way to create a route open up E Street," she said.

President Bush, at the Secret Service's urging, closed E Street beside the White House after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The NCPC considered and rejected designs by Balmori Associates of New York, EDAW of Alexandria and Peter Walker and Partners of California.

The NCPC is the federal government's central planning agency in the District and provides guidance for federal land and buildings in the region. Six of the NCPC's 12 members serve on the task force, which is charged with evaluating the impact of federal security measures on the District's monuments and memorials.

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