Tourist Spot Is Hard-Hat Zone As Penn. Ave. Work Begins

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2004; Page B01

The most vaunted stretch of America's Main Street will soon be leaving Washington, hauled out of town on the backs of heavyweight trucks after being fenced off, torn up and stacked in irregular piles in front of the White House.

What transportation officials say will emerge in its place is a tree-lined pedestrian plaza that aims to restore some aesthetic dignity to the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But first: a new security fence, heavy equipment, blocked sidewalks and the jackhammering sounds of a construction crew on a strict deadline. The workers have been ordered to complete the $26.1 million project by October, so the grounds can be smoothed into shape for the inaugural parade next January. That means tourists, whether they are in town for the Cherry Blossom Festival, on springtime school trips or vacationing in the summer and into the fall, will have to aim their cameras over the fence for the next nine months to get a snapshot of the White House's front doors.

When it's all done -- in the words of first lady Laura Bush, who praised the plan when it was approved last fall -- "barriers will be replaced with towering elms, and benches along the open walkways will make welcome spots to enjoy the historic scenery of Washington, D.C."

Closed to vehicular traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the two-block stretch of pavement has since suffered an identity crisis: It hasn't really been a street, and it hasn't really been a sidewalk. But it has been a repository for mismatched traffic barriers including concrete planters, temporary fences and parked police cars.

"Pennsylvania Avenue has been a national disgrace for the past eight years," said Richard L. Friedman, chairman of a security task force for the National Capital Planning Commission, when the panel approved the project. "And it is the most complex urban planning problem I have seen in my 40 years of professional practice."

One reason for the complexity is that a lot of people have different ideas about what the front of the White House should look like. Most involved in the design debate last year agreed that the disparate blockades should be replaced with security barriers that share some sort of aesthetic unity. Some, including many District government officials, wanted the street reopened to traffic. But the Secret Service repeatedly opposed those efforts, saying public vehicular access would put the building at too great a risk to terrorists.

Conceding on the idea of an immediate reopening, those advocating vehicular use lobbied for a reversible plaza, one that wouldn't permanently pave over all hopes for a reopening if the risk assessments are revised. Builders say the construction project now underway could be "undone" -- after about a month and $675,000 of additional work -- but some who argued for resumed vehicular use say they fear the project represents a big step toward permanent closure.

"It's like the Romans conquering Carthage and plowing salt into the ground so nothing would grow there anymore," said Robert L. Hershey, a past president of the D.C. Society of Professional Engineers and a leading opponent of the project.

The plans, drafted by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., call for two entry courts stretching from 15th Street to Madison Place on the east side of the White House and from 17th Street to Jackson Place on the west side. Guard booths featuring lead-coated copper roofs and granite bases will sit at the entry points, and the ground around them will be paved with gray granite.

The pedestrian plaza in the middle will be about 900 feet long, paved with a crushed rock material in a light brown, similar to the surface at Buckingham Palace in London and at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rows of American elm trees will combine with granite benches, twin-headed streetlamps and new, fluted bollards to provide additional vehicle barriers. The plan allows enough room for routes of the Downtown Circulator, a proposed tourist shuttle bus service being considered as a supplement to the city's public transportation system.

If vehicular restrictions are eventually lifted, only the guard booths and some of the bollards will have to be removed. All the other additions -- including the trees, benches and lights -- will sit outside the existing 84-foot-wide avenue.

The Federal Highway Administration, which is overseeing the project, erected the chain-link fence around the street last week, blocking pedestrian access to the sidewalks directly in front of the White House. Several trees near the avenue were cut down over the weekend to prepare for digging, and hydraulic excavators began ripping up the south side of the avenue directly in front of the White House this week. Throughout the week, the clawing buckets of the excavators tore up old streetcar rails that had been buried under the pavement.

The chain-link fence, which is difficult to see through in most places because of a green, tarplike covering, will remain standing for the duration of the project, according to the highway administration.

Because of the slope of the grounds at Lafayette Square, tourists still can get unobstructed views of the White House, but from a distance. Yesterday, Sandeep Kumar, visiting Washington on a business trip from India, walked to Lafayette Square for a glimpse of what he said was the landmark he most wanted to see. Though he said he was impressed by the sight, he was disappointed that he couldn't get a closer look.

The fence "kind of obstructs everything," he said. " 'You can't cross this border!' -- that's how it feels."

The highway administration was given $11.1 million by Congress for planning, design and initial construction, and President Bush's pending 2004 budget includes $15 million for additional construction.

But if anyone thinks the start of construction signals the end of opponents' efforts to derail the project, Hershey said they're wrong.

"What they're doing right now are things that don't cost much," Hershey said. "They still need mucho millions of dollars to put in something else. And that money hasn't been finalized yet."