Throwing Pa. Avenue A Curve

THURSDAY, MAY 23, 1996


Park Service Plans Jeffersonian Look

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer

The National Park Service yesterday proposed reconfiguring the closed section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House into a curved street, a move deisigned to evoke the character of the grounds during Thomas Jefferson's presidency.

The design is an attempt to make the best and a less-than desirable situation, softening the current view af six lanes of empty asphalt and joining the White House lawn and Lafayette Square in a common design. President Clinton or ordered the two-block stretch closed off a year ago because of concerns that the executive mansion could be susceptible to a car-bomb attack.

After soliciting suggestions from architects, planners and citizens, the Park Service came up with a $40 million plan that would transform an area that had been an important cross-town artery for vehicles into a tree-lined avenue for pedestrians, with wide footpaths, soothing fountains and less ominous vehicle barriers.

"It's people against cars," said Roger Kennedy, director of the National Park Service. The closing of the street "gives us a chance to restore this space to the founders' intention of a public square. . . . This is not so much about the White House as it is about creating the center of town."

The Park Service's recommendation now goes to the pubic for comments before the final plan is released in July. It must be approved by the National Capital Planning Commission. The Fine Arts Commission and a couple of historical preservation groups, including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, also will consider it. After that, administration officials will seek funds from Congress and private sources.

Because the money hasn't been raised, Park Service officials could not predict when--or if--the make over would occur. The Park Service said it will begin replacing the concrete highway barriers at either end of the closed section of Pennsylvania next week with planters and guardhouses, a temporary measure until work can begin on a full redesign.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), among the earliest opponents of the street closing, said yesterday that she would try to block congressional funding for the Park Service plan, which she said would permanently harm downtown Washington.

The avenue's closing has left the downtown area "dysfunctional and disfigured," Norton said. "Pennsylvania Avenue is not a park. It is the major downtown east-west artery in the nation's capital."

The permanent plan calls for slightly expanding the north lawn of the White House with the curve as the central feature. "The blessing of this plan was the rediscovery of the curve," Kennedy said.

The eight-foot-high wrought-iron fence between the two north gates also would be moved north and would be shaped in a curve, similar to a stone wall that was there during Jefferson's presidency, from 1801 to 1809. The concrete sidewalk in front of the fence would be curved, too, and replaced with a brick walk The curbs on either side of the street would be eliminated, increasing access for wheelchairs and strollers. Gone, too, would be the four-foot-high concrete posts along the sidewalk because vehicular access to the street would be blocked elsewhere.

Embedded in the street in front of the White House would be famous quotations from presidents. The avenue itself--between 15th and 17th streets NW--would be rebuilt in a light colored stone. It would be reduced from 84 feet, wide enough for six lanes of traffic, to about 60 feet, or four lanes. The Inaugural Parade would continue its route past the White House.

The curved shape and narrower street reduces the scale of Pennsylvania so that visitors looking down the street from either of the closed ends are not confronted with a massive slab of asphalt, planners said. The curve creates a gathering place in front of the White House, said Susan Spain, leader of the Park Service's Pennsylvania Avenue design team.

Near each end of the avenue, gatehouses would be built to screen vehicles. The concrete barriers would be replaced with four-foot-high black iron posts called bollards. Those same posts would be erected along H Street to keep vehicles off Jackson and Madison places and out of the square.

The Park Service plan also calls for a major dressing up of Lafayette Square, which Kennedy said has become "really shabby."

The deteriorated public restrooms in the square would be replaced with a new facility on the northwest·side of the square. The park would get new fountains, benches and chess tables.

Madison and Jackson places, which border the park east and west, would be closed to vehicles, reduced in width and converted to pedestrian walks. The major intersections around the White House perimeter would be repaved in a distinctive material such as brick and would include an emblem, possibly a star, so that people know they are entering a special area.

The tour buses that now park along H Street, blocking views, spewing fumes and obstructing traffic would be required to park in an undetermined area away from the White House. In this way, H Street would become the new place for a drive-by view.

Harry G. Robinson III, of Howard University, chairman of a panel of architects who advised the Park Service, said that wider entrances leading into Lafayette Square, distinctive pavement markings and elimination of tour buses would reconnect the White House area with the rest of the city.

Kennedy said the design would not interfere with the homeless people and protesters who congregate in Lafayette Square.

Despite recent calls to reopen the street to vehicles, officials of the Treasury Department, which is responsible for protecting the president, said they will continue to keep it closed. Park Service officials said their design reflects that assumption, but Kennedy said the plan could be changed easily if a future president decided to reopen the street.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park