Washington's tourist sites changing to meet the times

Task force seeks to protect buildings, monuments and citizenry

July 14, 2002|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - This graceful capital city envisioned more than two centuries ago by Pierre L'Enfant is being dramatically altered in the grim era of Osama bin Laden.

A "National Capital Urban Design and Security Plan" is expected to bring permanent, less obtrusive barriers to replace the "ugly and makeshift security" measures that have been hurriedly erected. The National Capital Planning Commission will vote on the $800 million renovation project, whose funding would have to be approved by Congress.

But this plan is only one of many changes coming to the nation's capital - not all inspired by security concerns:

In front of the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue will be a pink granite promenade guarded by retractable steel posts that will allow inaugural parades to pass every four years.

A gleaming World War II Memorial will surround the Rainbow Pool on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

After careful screening in underground visitor centers, tourists will be entering the Capitol, and perhaps the Washington Monument, through tunnels.

The National Capital Planning Commission oversees proposed changes to the city of broad avenues, monumental buildings and scenic open spaces that was designed by L'Enfant, a French architect selected by George Washington.

The commission appointed an interagency security task force to come up with a plan to protect the buildings, monuments and citizenry while also preserving the historic sights and symbols. The task force's plan is expected to be approved Thursday by the commission.

`Necessary feature'

"Security measures have become an unfortunate but now necessary feature of urban life, as in our capital city," said Richard L. Friedman, chairman of the task force. "Good security and good urban design are not incompatible, however, and we must find ways to move beyond the unsightly barriers and make Washington a city that truly reflects the beauty, values, and spirit of America."

The task force proposes, for example, that the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials be encircled by low concrete walls with a veneer of stone that matches the monuments.

However, several major renovations had begun even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

In the 1970s, discussion began on an underground visitor center to be located near the Capitol beneath parkland designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the pioneer landscape architect.

The center will contain 580,000 square feet of space on three levels on the east side of the Capitol, near the Supreme Court and Library of Congress. The center will be nearly as large as the Capitol itself, which encompasses 775,000 square feet.

Ground was broken ceremonially for the $368 million project on in June 2000. Progress was stalled for a time because some lawmakers wanted private contributions to pay for the bulk of the effort, but a $40 billion emergency anti-terrorism package enacted last winter contained funds to speed up construction.

4 million tourists

Advocates said the center was needed as much for handling the ever-growing crush of tourists as for security. Nearly 4 million people visit the Capitol each year - 18,000 on a busy day. Using the new center and a new system of timed entries, 2,200 people will be able to pass through the tunnel and go on 30-minute guided tours of the Capitol each hour.

"The Capitol has continually evolved for more than 200 years to meet the needs of Congress as the nation has grown," said Alan Hantman, the architect of the Capitol. "This next increment of growth will meet the needs of the millions of visitors who come to the Capitol each year and have not been properly accommodated in the past."

The National Park Service has proposed a similar, though much less elaborate, underground entryway for the Washington Monument.

Because of the threat of terrorists driving vehicles laden with explosives, the Monument has been encircled with concrete barriers that mar its setting as a gleaming obelisk set atop a hill. The current entry system requires hundreds of people to stand outdoors in the brutal summer sun and whipping winds of winter to await an elevator ride to the top.

The Park Service has proposed renovating Monument Lodge at the base of the hill into a pavilion where visitors would descend into a waiting area. After a security screening, they would go in escorted groups of 25 to the basement of the Washington Monument. From there, they would take the elevator to the top.

The elevator would stop on the ground floor on the way down and the visitors would exit from the hilltop.

The unsightly barricades would be removed. Protection would be provided by a ring of low stone walls much farther from the monument and landscaped with gentle rises. Trees would be planted, but designers said the area would retain its open vista.

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