Street at a Crossroads

The Right Direction on Pennsylvania Avenue

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer

The National Park Service is to be applauded, up to a point, for the plan it unveiled this week to accommodate the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Honoring the three fundamental attributes of the place--the house, the street, the park--the plan calls for modest, fitting changes.

The White House front yard is enlarged ever so slightly and Lafayette Square reduced by a correspording amount. In between is a narrowed, curbless "avenue" for waiters, distinguished by an elegant curve. The three pieces retain their identities, yet they form a more gracious, inviting whole--possibly, in the vision of advocates, a "town square" for both the city and nation.

Still, we are talking about two cheers, not three. There is bad news along with the good.

May 20, 1995, when President Clinton abruptly closed the avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW to vehicular traffic, was not a good day. The security concerns were, and are, real--a bomb exploding on the avenue with the force of the Oklahoma City blast would decimate the White House--but shutting down the "nation's main street" was a drastic step.

Symbolically, the action widened the distance between the leader of the democracy and the people he was elected to lead. This gap has been growing year by year, and most of us accept it as the unfortunate price of keeping the president alive. But the barriers blocking off the big street are vivid, dailly reminders of just how deeply forced segregation cuts against the grain of our system of government.

And, in practical terms, closing off so major a street with so little forethought was bound to have bad effects on the city of Washington. (Actually, 1 1/2 streets were shut down--west-bound traffic on State Place and I Street south of the White House also was curtailed.) Opinions vary about just how bad the effects are, but there is no question that it has seriously hindered east-west trafiic flow. This is no negligible technicality-movement from one place to another is the very life-blood of cities.

So it was evident from Day One that it would take creative thinking to salvage something good from a bad situation. The Park Service plan takes us at least part of the way.

One of the best things about it is a step that was not taken. Despite early appeals from some in the design community, there was no open, national competition to redesign the whole area. This idea had a certain superficial appeal, but was mischievous in the extreme. There simply was no need to treat the White House lawn, the avenue and Lafayette Square as if they needed wholesale reordering.

What was needed, rather, was some skillful adjusting to give the area north of the White House a cohesive identity, and this is what the new plan does with some success. It is something that California architect John Carl Warnecke has been saying for a long time - he began thinking about the area more than three decades ago when he helped devise a plan to save the 19th-century buildings around Lafayette Square. Through the specifics of the Park Service plan are not Warnecke's, it owes much to him in spirit.

The new plan's one big gesture - that curve in the avenue - accomplishes a lot. It preserves the roadway (narrowed by 20 feet) for inaugural parades. There's also a possibility for future automobile traffic - though at Wednesday's news conference Park Service Director Roger Kennedy discouraged such a thought.

At the same time, the curve gives this particular slice of the avenue an appropriate, distinguished new identity. And by gracefully extending the White House lawn while picking up the curvlinear geometries of Lafayette Square, it goes a long way toward tying together the lawn, the street and the park.

The park itself, though not greatly altered, is subtly improved.. The crucial north-south axis, a feature of Pierre L'Enfant's original city plan, is reinforced with wider walkways and a couple of long rectangular pools of water north and south of the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Madison and Jackson Place are narrowed and freed of both moving and parked cars - a long overdue change. Security barriers - black-painted metal posts anchored deep in the ground - promise to be quite handsome.

Another of the plan's basic aims is "to connect thsi special White House district ni very special ways to the city of Wahsington," said Harry G. Robinson III, the Howard University architecture dean who headed up a design workshop on the issue last December. Hence there is a proposal to extend the design themes several blocks beyond the immediate area with distinctive tree plantings, pavement materials and motifs - such as stars embedded in the crosswalks.

This is fine as far as it goes, but for the area to truly catch on - toconnect with the city in more vital ways - a lot more will be needed.

Let's face it, the Lafayette Square area is pretty dull. The architecture and the park are nice, and there are a couple of museums, but it's mostly a quiet office compound. Even tourists bisiting the White House tend to skip the square - like the office workers, they go elsewhere to buy, eat and be entertained.

Obviously, this is not a condition that is easy to change, but it is worrisome that, in presenting the new plan,nobody confronted the issue. Good design, though absolutely essential, is not in itself enough. Making the area livelier will take lively thinking, and the kind of federal-local coordination not yet in evidence.

The federal government, for example, should consider putting something else besides offices in those restored 19th-century town houses - renting them to restaurants, perhaps, or appropriate kinds of stores, or educational facilities. Maybe there ought to be a bandstand, with regular concerts bythe military bands. Frequent historical rours of Lafayette Square would be a hit. More and better chess tables...or something!

Of course, the subject of automobile traffic must be addressed, althought he feds, irresponsibly, don't like to talk about it. At the very lease, it is clear that alternative east-west routes must be found. Reopening E Street to west-bound traffic is one good possibility - a study by architect-engineer Joseph Passonneau demonstrates that this is possible with just a few, simple, non-threatening adjustments.

Then again, reopening the closed segment of Pennsylvania Avenue to at least limited traffic remains a possibility. But it is not something that can or should be done lightly. Security cannot be allowed to dominate all other issues, but it cannot be ignored. In this case, the safety of the president and his family is a paramount concern.

These and other issues are sure to be aired mroe thoroughly now that there is a definite plan. Congress, after all, will be asked to pay for it. The challenge today, as it was last May, is to treat this as an opportunity to improve the city. The Park Service has made a good beginning.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park