Congress revisits Capitol project Security: Architects' pricey plans for a tourism center are being reconsidered after gunman's attack.

August 13, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They wait for hours in the summer heat, drowsy or frustrated or just plain bored in their Bermuda shorts or sweat-drenched tank tops. They wander the grounds, vaguely lost. They crowd the corridors, not quite sure what they're looking at but pretty impressed nonetheless.

All told, the throngs of tourists at the Capitol tend to be a fairly bewildered lot, but who could blame them? They enter the grand symbol of our representative democracy through four public entrances, into a dizzying labyrinth of corridors, anxiously searching for signs, asking anybody in a tie or uniform for directions.

The responses are no help: Up these stairs, down those, take the elevators to the basement, left, right, and good luck finding the Senate gallery, buster.

Three years ago, Baltimore's famed architectural firm RTKL Associates crafted an answer to these problems: a sumptuous three-story underground visitors center at the Capitol to ease the tourists' way with orientation videos, educational displays, a cafeteria and bathrooms, an amenity sorely missed by today's queuing throngs.

The project has languished on the back burners of Congress ever since, dogged by complaints that it is a costly boondoggle.

But RTKL's project has been given a second look, not because of the tourists for which it was designed, but because of the deaths of two federal police officers. That comeback could still prove ephemeral if the arguments against the project roar back as the memories of the terrifying Capitol shooting recede. But at least for now, the proposal has become the darling of Republican and Democratic leaders alike, still scrambling for a response to the shootings of Officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John Gibson.

"I don't think we need another study," said Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. "I think we've got to get it done."

"We went through a laborious, bipartisan, bicameral process to develop that design," agreed Rep. Vic Fazio, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "I hope we do it now."

The argument for some kind of visitors center is hard to ignore, though the drawbacks are numerous.

Up to 7 million tourists line up each year. With security checkpoints located at the doorways of the building itself, it took nothing but brute force for a determined gunman to barge in, gun blazing.

RTKL Associates won the Architect of the Capitol's contract in 1991 for an initial feasibility study to remedy these problems, then received $42.6 million in 1994 to complete the final design.

Under the plan, visitors would be channeled through a security check more than 300 feet east of the Capitol building, into a 350,000-square-foot complex burrowing three stories underground. Those floors would include display areas, a two-story exhibition hall, a separate exhibition for the Library of Congress' film, television and sound recording collections, three auditoriums seating more than 1,000 people in all, two assembly rooms, a gift shop, diaper-changing stations, restrooms and a 600-seat cafeteria.

Visitors would then funnel toward one last corridor and glide effortlessly up escalators or elevators into the Capitol.

All this would come at a hefty cost: $71 million when it was first proposed in 1991, $95 million in 1995, when RTKL completed the design, and now $125 million. Aides close to the project say even a scaled-back design would be costly.

Drawbacks

Only an underground structure would preserve famous vistas of the Capitol from the east, and much of the expense would come from burrowing the structure underground.

Construction would be time-consuming and unsightly, and parking spaces would be lost for good. Since most of that parking is now reserved for journalists, some aides joked that the project would be doomed to negative publicity.

Moreover, the visitors center might make the Capitol building safer, but it would do little, supporters concede, to protect the Capitol police officers in whose honor it is being re-evaluated. Officers would be at risk whether they were manning security checkpoints at the gates of the Capitol or the gates of a visitors center.

"Whenever you have a perimeter, you will place someone at risk, and the Capitol police officers know they will be at risk," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, one of three Democrats on the House committee that must approve the center's construction. "But still, the fact of the matter is, the farther out the perimeter is, the more control of access you have."

Though Republican leaders have publicly expressed their support, their aides say privately that these issues might prove prohibitive. One high-ranking Republican aide flatly called the proposal "a boondoggle."

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