Washington Post

A Pennsylvania Avenue for the People

By John Carl Warnecke
Sunday, August 9, 1998; Page C02

Three years ago, in the name of valid concerns for security, America's most celebrated Main Street was shut down. Pennsylvania Avenue, the once-proud thoroughfare, which for almost two centuries bore inaugural parades and processions as well as ordinary people past the White House, was transformed overnight into a barren asphalt lot.

The warning that the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue offers--and one that we should heed as we think about ways of making modifications to prevent incidents such as the recent shootings at the Capitol and the embassy bombings in Africa--is that it requires innovative thinking to ensure safety without damaging the history or architectural integrity of our city.

I first became involved with the evolving design of Pennsylvania Avenue 35 years ago, when I redesigned Lafayette Square for President John F. Kennedy, who was anxious to maintain the area's historic character. The project involved rescuing and renovating (instead of razing) the 19th-century townhouses that border the square, and integrating them with new federal office buildings behind them. The new buildings were to be complementary, a tribute to the old. The idea--which was successfully implemented between 1965 and 1975--was to provide additional office space and modernize the area without losing its essential character, all the time with a view to maintaining the square as a vibrant symbol of our democracy.

Just one part of the project remained incomplete in 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated--the plan for Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. I had proposed building a short tunnel to carry traffic under that stretch of road, in much the way that tunnels have helped alleviate congestion in Dupont and Thomas circles. The plan was to create an open pedestrian promenade and plaza above the tunnel. I called it a "cross-axis plan," building upon the principles of axial design that Charles Pierre L'Enfant first brought to the capital two centuries ago. It was never acted upon.

In 1995, when a truck full of explosives devastated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and escalated the ongoing debate over access and safety, a special security review panel persuaded President Clinton to close down the avenue. Clinton subsequently ordered a redesign that would eliminate traffic in front of the White House altogether.

One year later, the National Park Service made public a plan that would go a step further, removing the historic avenue altogether and replacing it with a narrower, curving pedestrian pathway. Probably hoping to avoid the danger of the avenue ever being reopened to traffic, the Department of Treasury and the Secret Service backed the new plan. The public, meanwhile, is growing accustomed to the idea that America's Main Street is a thing of the past, that a fortress is being created in its place.

The Park Service plan for a curved pathway has few merits. In its aim to increase safety, it defies principles of architecture and common sense. In my view, the curved design, which loops away from the White House, destroys the historical relationship between the White House, Lafayette Park and the avenue, allowing the White House to encroach on the park--a space that had always belonged to the people.

Equally important, the plan overlooks the all-important problem of traffic congestion. Over the past century, the area around the White House has grown from a residential neighborhood to a booming office center. Any new plan needs to take into account the fact that traffic will only increase as the city grows. So why close a central artery without providing a suitable alternative?

Of course, there are serious security concerns to be addressed. But that can be done while remaining faithful to the sort of long-term thinking and vision that George Washington and L'Enfant brought to the city's original design, and that the McMillan Commission adapted a century later when it expanded the core of the capital.

Given the evidence we now have of the damage unrestricted vehicular traffic can bring, I would now propose building a tunnel to the south on E Street, between the White House and the Ellipse, to maintain the traffic flow, but at a greater distance from the White House itself. (This would also allow pedestrians--now as many as 250 tourists every five minutes during White House tour hours--to move more freely between the Ellipse and the White House. A recent Federal Highway Administration plan to widen E Street and allow two-way traffic there would, in contrast, make crossing more difficult.)

During the 20th century, we have constructed nearly a dozen automobile tunnels of varying lengths in the city to accommodate the realities of increased traffic. They have worked. And once a long-term alternate commuter route is established, the historic avenue could be reopened in front of the White House to controlled traffic in any of several ways. Think of Rock Creek Park or New York's Central Park, both of which are used by pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers on weekends and by commuters during the week; the usage can change not only from weekdays to weekends, but from season to season.

With this sort of flexibility, the possibilities for Pennsylvania Avenue are as exciting as they are varied. Why not repave the roadway to bring to mind the 19th-century character of Lafayette Square, with old town tour buses, horses and buggies, and even vintage cars available as a means for tourists to view the White House?

L'Enfant built flexibility into his original design, and it is up to us now to exploit it wisely--not destroy it. Flexibility is the key to any future plan.

Our aim should be to enrich the core of Washington. It should be to bring more life to a city that has become too cold, too monumental and too sterile. Other major international cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Paris and London, have a vitality to their street life that Washington should be striving for. Despite threats of IRA terrorism, London has succeeded in maintaining vitality along its grand avenue, Pall Mall, keeping its art galleries, monuments and historical buildings alive with people.

With ever increasing numbers of tourists who come to our capital, we should be trying to make their visits as enjoyable and educational as possible. The White House should remain central--as a living symbol of our democracy.

John Carl Warnecke is founder of the Warnecke Institute of Design, Art and Architecture based in Sonoma County and San Francisco, Calif.