- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

Paul Logli made his first visit to the nation’s capital in 1964 when he attended a Boy Scout Jamboree. But when he returned with his family for a recent visit, he found metal detectors at the museums and at the U.S. Capitol, and armed guards blocking the White House gates.

“When I was a kid, you could just walk up the Capitol steps and circumnavigate the White House right up to the fence,” reminisced the 56-year-old from Rockford, Ill.

Yet, some of those imposing barriers are beginning to vanish as federal officials balance aesthetics with the need for stricter security measures in wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Near the White House, mature American elm trees, spaced at intervals so they can stop vehicles, have been planted along both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. They have replaced concrete barriers that first appeared after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And although unauthorized vehicles still are not allowed to drive near the executive mansion, metal bollards and entrance security booths have replaced the chain-link and bicycle fencing that critics said reflected the government’s siege mentality.

“They created a Spartan state in the nation’s capital — and that was unnecessary,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Gradually, the ugly stuff is disappearing.”

Beginning in 2001, the National Capital Planning Commission has worked with security specialists from nearly two dozen federal agencies to come up with a blueprint for removing all the makeshift barriers. Mrs. Norton has supported those measures.

But permanent security measures are expensive. After the September 11 attacks, the overall cost of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which is under construction, went from $265 million to $522 million. The increase includes more than $71 million for additional security enhancements to the building, which is slated to open next year.

Although security improvements at new facilities are being done behind construction barriers, changes at many existing sites are occurring with visitors present. “There’s tourism in Washington, 365 days a year,” said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

The major monuments and 14 national parks in the Washington area are visited by about 50 million people a year — and some of them are so committed to seeing the sights they have seen in books and on television that they literally will come out in a storm. One January morning, for example, Mr. Line was at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at 3:30 a.m. during a snowstorm and saw tourists snapping pictures at the wall.

The security work has been completed at the Washington Monument, where it took nearly four years to remove the last of the Jersey barriers from around the structure. A sloping pathway now takes visitors from the sidewalk to the base of the monument past a series of terraced low granite walls along lighted walkways.

“We walked the grounds, and it was nice,” said Kevin Gremli, a tourist from Orange County, N.Y.

At the Lincoln Memorial, crews are working to finish $5 million worth of security and access upgrades. The work includes the addition of a granite stone wall near adjacent streets. Bollards are being installed near the Reflecting Pool, located east of the memorial. “Those are designed to prevent anyone from driving up and doing anything dastardly,” Mr. Line said.

Park and security officials also have gotten more creative at some stops.

The National Capital Planning Commission and other agencies with a role in overseeing the city’s design have called for the use of trees and other natural materials. So, at the National Museum of the American Indian, huge boulders have been used in conjunction with a decorative moat — all of which can block vehicles from approaching the building.

Along the wide thoroughfares flanking the Mall, concrete planters have been replaced with trees, low benches and heavy decorative planters. Known as Reagan planters, because they originally were designed for use around the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, they became the “planter of choice” around the Federal Triangle, said Mike McGill, a spokesman for the General Services Administration.

The planters are lifted into place with forklifts, and filled nearly to the top with concrete to increase their bulk. They are capped with enough soil to support flowers. No one knows how many of the planters have been placed around the city as stopgap security measures, but even those are being replaced by more aesthetically pleasing security barriers.

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