By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A01
The First Family would get a new rec room, the Ellipse would be stripped of automobiles, tourists would walk to the White House through a tunnel, and vendors would be booted off two streets under a 20-year, $300 million plan proposed yesterday to improve the White House grounds.
Congress and 10 agencies would have to approve the plan before construction could begin.
Billed by National Park Service officials as the first comprehensive overhaul of the White House area since Pierre L'Enfant laid it out in 1791, the plan essentially would expand the grounds, executive mansion and visitor center by adding underground facilities.
Most of the 1,100 parking spaces for White House staff on the Ellipse and grounds would be replaced by two garages beneath Pennsylvania Avenue and the Ellipse, according to the plan. In this way, the White House complex would siphon parked cars from the street, a gesture to pedestrians who no longer would have to dodge cars and delivery trucks while walking around grounds that from some angles now are thick with barriers and bollards. About 1.2 million people visit the White House every year.
The White House press corps, now housed in cramped facilities in the West Wing that the Park Service described as "resembling a set from a 1950s TV show," also would go underground in the plan, which calls for adding new room for the daily media briefings.
The plan, put together over the past six years, was silent on the future look of the two-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House that President Clinton closed to traffic in May 1995 because of concerns that a vehicle bomb could approach and damage the executive residence.
A separate plan to convert the closed street and adjacent Lafayette Square into a pedestrian mall was completed two years ago, but funding for it has been denied by members of Congress who want Pennsylvania Avenue reopened. When that issue is resolved, planners "will fold it back in to the long-range plan," said Ann Bowman Smith, project coordinator.
Other than stripping the grounds of automobiles, Park Service officials are not recommending any further closings that would shut public access. The piece of E Street NW south of the White House will remain, for now, open to eastbound traffic only, although that could change if federal highway officials proceed with plans to allow traffic in both directions to ease congestion created by the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"The people must have access. They must be able to come near. They must be able to see the home and workplace of their leader," National Park Service Director Robert Stanton said at a news conference unveiling the plan at the White House Visitor Center. "And our plan must make that happen even as we also accommodate issues of services, storage, functions."
White House and Park Service officials said they did not know whether Clinton had been briefed about the plan.
The public will have a chance to comment on the plan Jan. 27 and 28. Park Service officials hope that if all the necessary approvals are met, they can get started on the work by the end of next year. During construction -- sequenced over two decades -- all White House functions, tours and special events would continue.
Likely opponents are the food and souvenir vendors who park along the curb lanes of 15th and 17th streets NW adjacent to the White House. Smith said "vendors become a wall you can't see past" and disrupt traffic flow. The District government, however, draws tax revenue from the vendors.
"If they say no, we'd lose our job," said Chang Ik, 44, of Fairfax County, who operates one of the souvenir trucks parked along 15th Street.
Charles H. Atherton, secretary of the Commission on Fine Arts, one of the agencies that will consider the plan, said: "On the whole, it's a pretty good plan, though lots of pieces to the puzzle aren't quite there yet, such as Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House will function a lot better, especially on mundane daily things like deliveries. Right now it's absolute chaos."
In making their case for the revamping, Park Service officials drew a picture of a revered mansion and grounds in a constant state of turmoil that largely is hidden from public view.
The White House, for example, doesn't have enough storage space, meaning that every time there is a diplomatic reception -- which can occur several times a week -- officials hire a moving company to transport tables and chairs to the mansion, return for them and store them in a warehouse until the next event.
"Closets, corridors and driveways overflow with furniture and equipment, as though the staff were having a tag sale," officials said in a report accompanying the plan. "No modern hotel would put up with such chaos, yet the White House has been doing it for years because it has no choice."
Because the residence is designed to be used for formal occasions, the First Family does not have much living space and has practically no room to kick back. The plan proposes an indoor recreation room described as a combination den, gym and entertainment space for the First Family.
The convoy of trucks and vans that jams the grounds each day would be redirected to loading docks beneath the New Executive Office Building, with White House deliveries made by small golf-cart-type vehicles. Meeting rooms, now woefully lacking, would be built beneath West Executive Avenue.
The president's motorcade, visiting dignitaries and senior staff would park in a two-story, 290-car garage to be built beneath Pennsylvania Avenue. An 850-car garage would be constructed under the Ellipse for White House staff who currently park along the Ellipse. Officials are open to the idea of the Ellipse garage being used for public parking on weekends and holidays, although they are not currently proposing it.
Under the proposal, the Ellipse would be elevated in importance. "Compared to the manicured lushness of the White House grounds, the Ellipse seems an afterthought," the report said, with too many parked cars and beat-up fields. The asphalt driveway used by cars will be torn out and replaced by a pedestrian walkway. The bleachers will be dismantled, though a special events plaza will be added at the northeast corner of the Ellipse.
Instead of waiting outdoors in the rain or cold, White House visitors would begin their tours at the existing visitor center, which would add a museum, four theaters and exhibits. From there, visitors would walk on a moving sidewalk beneath 15th Street in a tunnel that would end outdoors, a few hundred feet from the current tour entrance. Some officials wanted the entire walk to be underground, but some agency officials objected, saying it would diminish the impact of approaching the White House.
"You need a breath of fresh air and a look at that grand avenue down to the Capitol," Atherton said.
The Commission on Fine Arts set the Park Service's comprehensive review in motion, disturbed by the piecemeal security changes being made to the White House since the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.
The first construction phase includes the underground parking, storage and meeting space under West Executive Avenue NW. Park Service officials expressed hope they could attract private donations to defray costs.
REMAKING PRESIDENT'S PARK
Plans were released yesterday for a 20-year, $300 million project to remake parts of the White House grounds and the surrounding 82 acres of parkland known as "President's Park." The new plan will include underground parking and other facilities.
North parking facility: 290-space underground parking facility for motorcades, diplomats, business visitors, senior White House staff.
Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Square: The new design does not cover the closed part of Pennsylvania Avenue or Lafayette Square. A separate plan for these areas will be later determined by Congress.
Press corps center: Large underground facility for the media, including a new briefing room and a room for foreign media
E Street: Remains two lanes eastbound for now
Underground Ellipse parking facility: 850 spaces for staff
Visitor center : Existing center is expanded into two basement levels; daily tours would use the underground tunnel to cross 15th St.
SOURCE: National Park Service.