Washington Post

Open and Shut Cases
for America's Main Street

Sunday, August 23, 1998; Page C08

In his article proposing renovation of Pennsylvania Avenue [Outlook, Aug. 9], architect John Carl Warnecke argued that "America's Main Street was shut down" by closing the two-block stretch north of the White House to traffic three years ago. This is nonsense, with Warnecke erring on points of history, geography and tourism.

First, Warnecke wrote that the "thoroughfare, which for almost two centuries bore inaugural parades and procession . . . was transformed into a barren asphalt lot."

As anyone who has looked at old photos of Washington knows, the most famous parade route in the capital always has been the long diagonal stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and 15th Street at the Treasury Building, which remains open to traffic and continues to host parades, protests and festivals. The two-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is not even contiguous with the historical parade route designed by Pierre L'Enfant.

Second, Warnecke said the White House stretch of the avenue should be reopened to certain vehicles, "as a means for tourists to view the White House." But any tourist who can walk or use a wheelchair can travel one block from 15th Street or 17th Street and enjoy a view of the White House.

Finally, Warnecke argued that Washington should strive for a "vitality to [its] street life" as do other international cities. Reintroducing vehicles to the front of the White House would do nothing to create a vital street life, however; to the contrary, many European cities (think of London's Neal Street north of Covent Garden and Florence's Via de Calzaioli from the Duomo to the Piazza Vecchio) have closed off certain downtown streets to discourage noise and exhaust and encourage walking. Indeed, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Renwick Gallery now is often the site of exuberant roller hockey games. Perhaps the California-based Warnecke hasn't been to the White House too often during the past three years.

I agree that the blank asphalt in front of the White House should be renovated, but to say that "America's Main Street is a thing of the past" is just plain wrong.

-- Paul Boudreaux Jr.

The headline on John Carl Warnecke's article, "A Pennsylvania Avenue for the People," can never be true as long as America's Main Street is partially closed. If the avenue remains blockaded or is placed in a tunnel, only pedestrians, bikers and roller bladers will be able to enjoy the view of the White House, while the people riding in transit buses, taxicabs, sightseeing vehicles or the family car will be denied the patriotic thrill of seeing the president's home during their travels. In other words, only the athletic or those with lots of time to spare will enjoy this view of the White House. And the majority of the people will continue to have the disadvantages of a city divided at the core.

Why all the stress on closing only Pennsylvania Avenue to protect the president when so many other places are equally vulnerable? The truck bombs that exploded in Oklahoma City and at our African embassies did not have several hundred feet of grass between the street and the building, as the White House does. Is a minimal risk worth disrupting the city and inconveniencing residents and visitors? Surely we have better ways to protect the president.

If the avenue and E Street behind the White House are not reopened by the time the next president is inaugurated, I hope the new president will order it done. Several civic organizations are urging the reopenings, including the Association of Oldest Inhabitants, the Federation of Citizens Associations and the D.C. Building Industry Association.

However, the Board of Trade, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the taxi businesses, the tourism industry, Metro, the D.C. Council and the American Automobile Association don't seem to be doing much to urge restoration of our ease of circulation around downtown. That should make a good campaign issue for someone.

Nothing short of complete reopening will bring Pennsylvania Avenue back to the people -- all of the people.

-- Harold Gray is past president of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants.