Joan Scott and Tina Pauley took extra time to savor the view yesterday afternoon as they strolled past the White House to their daily swim at the downtown YWCA.
"We love the trees and the squirrels. We never take it for granted that two residents of Foggy Bottom can walk right by the president's house," said Pauley, a retired librarian.
"But if I had to give it up for the president's safety, I could always take an alternate route. He has to come first," added Scott, a retired Foreign Service secretary.
Since Saturday, when a gunman on the sidewalk sprayed the White House with bullets before being overpowered by passersby, reports have circulated that the Secret Service may seek to close off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicles, pedestrians or both.
Secret Service officials yesterday would not be specific. White House spokesmen have said President Clinton is reluctant to shut off access to the avenue. "It is one of the options we're looking at, but no decision has been made on anything yet," said Curtis Eldridge, a spokesman for the Secret Service.
But the possibility of shutting down one of the most famous stretches of pavement in the nation's capital, the two blocks in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, already has provoked concern and debate among city officials, tourists, traffic specialists and downtown residents.
The section of the avenue between 15th and 17th streets is heavily traveled by suburban commuters during morning and evening rush hours, with about 13,000 cars passing by each way daily, according to city officials. It also draws a steady stream of tourists on foot, who often stop to have family snapshots taken against the White House fence.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) issued a statement yesterday strongly opposing any attempt to seal off the avenue. "I'm a lot more worried about the safety of the president as he runs in the streets than I am that he will be assassinated in the White House," she said.
She called the idea a "futile overreaction" to Saturday's shooting, in which no one was injured but bullet holes were left scattered across the residence.
A variety of city officials, however, said that presidential security is a higher priority than commuters' convenience or tourists' pleasure. "I wouldn't dare to second-guess those concerned with the president's safety. If they feel it's necessary to close off Pennsylvania Avenue, that's something we as citizens should accept," said E. Savannah Little, director of tourism and promotion for the District. "It's not something we want, but we don't want a tragedy either."
Richard Hebert, an official in the mayor's office of communications, said the city has received no request to shut down any streets around the White House.
"I think we are a long distance from that decision," he said.
He said it would be relatively easy to barricade the two blocks between the White House and Lafayette Square, but that to close them permanently would require a series of studies, public hearings and legal procedures, possibly lasting six months.
He speculated that in either case, traffic could be rerouted along H or I streets NW, paralleling Pennsylvania.
"Certainly anything you do there will be disruptive in the short term, but the traffic engineers tell me we could probably come up with a reasonable detour plan, which after a couple of weeks drivers would adjust to," Hebert said.
Taxi drivers who frequently travel Pennsylvania Avenue expressed concern over possible traffic complications, describing those blocks as an important commuter connection for Interstates 66 and 395, both major highways out of the city. They also worried about the overall effect on tourism by taxi.
"At least three or four times a day, someone asks me to drive them past the White House. Multiply that by several thousand cabs, and you are talking about a big business for the city, not just for us," said Abdul Ibrahim, who has been driving a city cab for eight years.
At the Old Ebbitt Grill, Manager Carlos Walker said he thought sealing off the avenue to cars might actually increase foot traffic to nearby businesses.
And Jay Brodie, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, said he doubted it would dampen the street's allure.
Tourists themselves seemed especially indignant over the notion that the president's mansion might be shut off from view. Yesterday, they gathered in clusters outside the White House fence, peering to see where the bullets had grazed and asking questions of Secret Service agents on the lawn inside.
"We have seen the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. Now we are seeing the house of the most powerful president in the world. It would be a great shame to take that away," said Yerko Lopez, a maintenance worker visiting from La Paz, Bolivia, as his two daughters posed for a photo in front of the White House fence.
"It wouldn't bother me if they cut off the traffic, but it would be silly and sad to shut it off to pedestrians just because of some nut," added Jim Swanson, a civilian employee at the Pentagon, who was showing the White House view to an out-of-town guest."Why should we give in?"