The National Capital Planning Commission yesterday approved plans for redesigning the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House with “security improvements,” but it will remain closed to traffic.
D.C. officials hailed the plan as a step toward reopening the avenue and relieving the impediment to crosstown traffic.
After eight years of studies and debate, the 12-member commission approved replacing concrete barriers with bollards and metal posts that will be retractable and removable for major events. However, cars will still be restricted from driving through the two blocks.
The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW has been closed to traffic since 1995.
“The plan allows us to breathe new life into America’s Main Street,” said Commission Chairman John Cogbill. “This project lends us an extraordinary opportunity to restore beauty and dignity to this important civic space.”
However, it won’t end the controversy. A promise to reopen the avenue was included in the Republican platform on which George W. Bush ran for president. The administration hedged on the promise after the inaugural, and after September 11 resistance to reopening the avenue stiffened. It has been used since in part as a parking lot for Secret Service and other agency vehicles.
Critics, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, have argued that closing that section of the street is not necessary since they say the White House, which is 350 feet from the road, is reinforced with structural steel. Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr. Williams said the mayor has not changed his mind.
“The White House recognized that there’s nothing pretty about a closed paved road,” said Tony Bullock, Mr. Williams’ spokesman. “It’s basically a beautification project, which we don’t object to. But studies have shown that there’s virtually no risk to the president or the White House. Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as E Street, needs to be opened to passenger vehicles.”
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who also is opposed to the street’s closure, said the commission’s plan is a step closer to reopening the street to motorists. Mrs. Norton said she’s pleased with the plan because the measures are retractable and removable.
“It’s a first sign of life on Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Mrs. Norton, the District’s nonvoting member in Congress. “Frankly, it’s a step toward reopening Pennsylvania Avenue. If Pennsylvania Avenue is not reopened, millions of people will think that the District is not an open city.”
A shuttle service called the Circulator is included in the plan. The shuttle, which will have multiple routes, will have access to Pennsylvania Avenue. Design improvements and construction begin in January, and the work is expected to be completed by October, in time to begin preparation for the 2005 Inaugural Parade.
Congress has already allocated $11.1 million for the planning and design, for the initiation of construction and for transportation studies to address the feasibility of a tunnel and to address other traffic problems resulting from street closures. President Bush’s 2004 budget also includes $15 million for construction of improvements.
The project also will require temporary installation of a six-foot-high construction fence obstructing the view of the White House for up to a year.
The plan includes removal of an odd collection of huge concrete planters, sections of Jersey wall and prefabricated guard shacks along the north side of the White House grounds.
They will be replaced with decorative, but functional bollards or metal posts.
Existing trees will be replaced with American elms, and more benches will be placed. Double light fixtures modeled after a 1923 design also will be erected.
The latest security measures will replace those installed immediately after the April 19, 1995, truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. President Clinton ordered the 1,600-foot portion of the avenue closed after the bombing, which killed 168 persons.
Since then, additional chain link and snow fencing has been used to isolate the White House from Lafayette Park, a traditional site for protests before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Today, visitors can only walk up to the wrought iron fence that surrounds the White House.
“This was an intolerable problem and a national disgrace,” said Richard L. Friedman, chairman of the commission’s Interagency Security Task Force.
The task force worked on the issue of reopening Pennsylvania Avenue before September 11, deciding afterward that the area should remain closed to vehicular traffic owing to security concerns.
According to the task force’s traffic analysis, an average of 29,000 vehicles traveled on Pennsylvania Avenue each day before the two-block section of road was closed.
Under the plan, the State Department’s Blair House Guest Residence and the north facades of the U.S. Treasury Building and the Eisenhower Office Building — also known as the Old Executive Office Building — will remain inside the security zone.
Although final designs have been approved, some materials remain subject to review. Commissioners still want to see samples of an asphalt blend that will be used on portions of the paved pedestrian esplanade.
The commission is the federal government’s planning agency in the District and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia.