Monday, March 14, 2005

Talks are under way for a major renovation of the White House briefing room and press work area in the West Wing, prompted in part by a General Services Administration walk-through inspection that found the cramped and cluttered quarters to be a “firetrap.”

“I don’t know who from the GSA said it, but that was the quote: “The place is a firetrap,’” said Steve Scully of C-SPAN, who serves on the board of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA). “It’s overcrowded and unsafe and needs to be moved up to standards.”

Although the White House has made recent efforts to provide storage space for the reporters’ equipment, the small rooms that serve as primary workspace for dozens of reporters and broadcast crews is still teeming with video cables, tripods, ladders and miles of wiring.

The renovation could begin as early as this summer, and one Bush administration official said all work areas for networks, newspapers and wire services could be affected. The tiny briefing room, with its 48 theater-style seats, may also get a major facelift, which could include installing robotic cameras and wiring each seat with individual microphones.

During the renovation, reporters could be moved to workspace in the Old Executive Office Building. The work is expected to start in August, when President Bush often retreats to his Texas ranch for several weeks, but could begin earlier.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said “these are very preliminary discussions, they are informal discussions at this point.”

“We’re committed to working in concert with the White House Correspondents’ Association. The goal here is to make the room nicer for everyone that uses it, and it has not been renovated in quite some time.”

He added that when a renovation occurs, “what we’re talking about is a temporary relocation for as short a period as possible.”

The White House press corps has used the area since 1970, when the workspace was built atop an indoor pool that was installed in 1933 to aid Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio therapy.

WHCA President Ron Hutcheson called the new plan now in preliminary stages a “pretty substantial renovation.”

“It’s going to be like a house renovation,” he said. “The bottom line is this is necessary and could be a real benefit to the press corps. But my main concern is I want to make sure it’s not part of an effort to reduce our space or push us out of the West Wing.”

In 1998, a National Park Service plan called for the West Wing press space to be halved and most reporters moved to a new underground bunker nearby. The plan called for construction of a 10,000 square-foot facility under West Wing Drive as part of a $300 million, 20-year plan to renovate the White House grounds.

Under the plan, the briefing room and press work areas would be “returned to Executive Residence use,” although other options were also under consideration. But after members of the press expressed concerns about access, only minor work was done to the briefing room and work area.

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