Washington Monument Dispute Resurfaces
Latest Plan for Underground Visitors Site Raises Issues of Screening, Safety
By Monte Reel
The idea of an underground visitors center at the Washington Monument has given supporters and critics something to argue about since its conception, and it was conceived decades before the most recent proposal was pitched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The idea was debated in 1966 when it was introduced as part of a proposed landscaping overhaul of the Mall, and again in 1973 when the National Park Service submitted its first detailed plans for an underground center. More deliberation followed in 1993, when the notion was resurrected and retooled -- and ultimately rejected by congressional budget drafters.
The most recent plan, proposed by the Park Service in 2001 and now being fleshed out by an architectural firm, won conceptual approval last year from the National Capital Planning Commission and would be partially funded in the Interior Department's appropriations bill for the next fiscal year. The concept is generally imitative of the 1993 proposal, but a key difference can be found in the project's name: It is no longer the "Washington Monument Visitors Center Plan"; it is now part of "Washington Monument Permanent Security Improvements."
Some critics say it's a blatant attempt by the Park Service to slide through a pet project by invoking the name of national security. They also say it could upset unstable soils under the obelisk and clutter the Mall with above-ground accessories such as air vents and emergency exits. Local engineers have testified in the last two years that they believe the risks of structural catastrophe to the monument's 15-foot-thick walls from hand-carried explosives are slight given security measures, and they have said that adding a tunnel would create more public safety hazards than it would solve.
"As soon as you say that it's for security, any project -- however questionable -- is able to move forward because everyone is afraid that one of these great monuments might be destroyed on their watches," said Judy Scott Feldman, an art history professor at American University who chairs the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, one of several groups fighting the proposal. "But in reality, [the underground proposal] has nothing to do with security."
The Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department, says the "no-dig" crowd repeatedly has misrepresented the plan and its potential effects. An underground concourse would be the safest and most efficient way to move visitors to the monument from an off-site security screening facility, park officials say, keeping visitors inaccessible to unscreened individuals as they move toward the entrance. Adding interpretive exhibits and a bookstore would simply be an efficient use of that concourse space, they say.
Park Service officials readily admit that preliminary plans were mostly lifted from the 1993 version, but they said that doesn't mean security isn't the driving force. The underground center is simply intended to be a way for visitors to get from point A, an off-site screening facility, to point B, the monument. The center is not a destination in itself this time around, they say.
"But if you do make the assumption that you need security screening off-site, then it makes no sense to us to build all the security measures and not put in an interpretive component," said Stephen Lorenzetti, chief of resource management for the Park Service's central office.
Both sides offer evidence suggesting that their positions are supported by history, regularly referencing a thick backlog of reports that underscores how much -- and how little -- has changed through the years.
They talk about how the 1931 soil analysis performed by Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers differs from subsequent studies, including a 2002 analysis also performed by Mueser Rutledge. They thumb through studies relating to the 1973 underground plans drafted by Hartman-Cox Architects and contrast them against current plans, also being developed by Hartman-Cox.
Sometimes they reach back not only through the decades, but through the centuries. Park Service officials hark back to the 1870s, saying that monument designer Lt. Col. Robert Casey preferred an underground entryway instead of above-ground doors. Although the Park Service lacks detailed records about why his wishes were not followed, officials believe his intentions were tripped by a familiar hurdle: "We think it was for a lack of funding," Lorenzetti said.
Opponents take their arguments back to the late 1700s, saying that when Pierre L'Enfant designed the city and called for an expanse of open parkland that became the Mall, he wasn't envisioning above-ground screening buildings, vents and other additions.
Even the historical record of soil research done around the monument has been thoroughly mined. The 1931 soil report suggested that if a 1901 landscaping plan that called for unloading of earth near the monument were followed, the monument would be in danger of collapse because of shifting, silty layers of soil and clay. Proposals for underground visitors centers were aired through the second-half of the century, but subsequent soil settlement surveys have suggested that excavation would not be dangerous if done carefully, and within limits. Last year's study suggested that building the 17-foot-wide tunnel, if done right, would not adversely affect the stability of the monument.
It's that "if" that opponents say worries them. They said that the Park Service essentially is asking the public to trust that the final plans, and the execution of those plans, will be handled correctly.
"The specifics of the plan is what matters," Feldman said, "but the Park Service isn't providing specifics and they don't intend to."
In a May letter to the National Capital Planning Commission, John G. Parsons, the Park Services associate regional director of lands, resources and planning, stated that specific diagrams being drafted by Hartman-Cox will not be discussed publicly. He also wrote that the plans the commission granted conceptual approval to last year have been "significantly revised," but that additional design details had not been submitted to the commission "for the same security reasons."
The tunneled concourse is part of a larger plan that includes stone walls encircling the monument that are designed to replace a ring of concrete Jersey barriers and prevent explosives-laden vehicles from approaching the monument. According to preliminary plans, the existing monument lodge near 15th Street would be enlarged and would serve as a screening facility. The larger lodge would replace the temporary structure on the east side of the monument and would house the same types of X-rays and magnetometers used now. Escalators would descend from that building to the underground facility leading to the monument about 400 feet away. After going up into the obelisk, visitors would exit from a door at the monument -- this would help preserve the experience of looking up at the 555-foot-tall structure at a close, unobstructed distance, the Park Service says.
An off-site screening facility such as the lodge is critical to security, Park Service officials say. Screening people at the monument would be foolish, officials say -- they're already at the monument. Distance is required to protect the monument, officials say, and the lodge provides a logical staging ground.
But some disagree, saying that off-site screening is not as crucial as the Park Service contends. At multiple hearings during the last two years, Robert L. Hershey, testifying on behalf of the D.C. Society of Professional Engineers, said that hand-carried explosives would not pose a threat to the monument's 81,120 tons of marble and granite. The tunnel, he said, would amplify the effect of a blast, put more people at risk and increase the threat of entrapment.
In 1999, Park Service consultants determined that it would take about seven pounds of explosives strategically stuffed into the upper level of the monument -- where the concrete is not as thick -- to cause the sides of the structure to peel away. But Hershey and other opponents of the off-site screening center said that such incidents would be prevented by simple, on-site screening precautions.
"Calling this a security measure is mislabeling," said Hershey, whose term as president of the society ended two months ago. "It probably helps them get money set aside, but it goes in the opposite direction of what it's supposed to do in terms of visitor safety. Visitors are less secure."
The idea for off-site screening was not addressed in the Park Service's 1999 "Strategic Counter-Terrorism Plan," which examined security at the monument and listed potential enhancements.
That idea, however, was mentioned in Hartman-Cox's 1973 plans advocating an underground facility with an entrance near the foot of the monument. That report said that creating a remote entry site and connecting it to the monument via a tunnel would be "expensive and oppressive." The report said an off-site entrance also would undermine the majesty experienced when approaching the monument on foot: "This is an important psychological experience and sequence which argues against a remote location for the facility," the report stated.
So what changed? A lot, Park Service officials say, after Sept. 11.
Sara K. Blumenthal, deputy associate regional director for lands, resources and planning for the Park Service, has testified to the National Capital Planning Commission that the Park Service believes terrorists are interested in spectacular attacks on icons, and that an attack on a remote screening site would be less of a threat. She also said that several security steps, including U.S. Park Police patrols, would prevent someone from storming through the concourse. And if an explosion were to occur, the tunnel walls would be built to withstand bomb blasts, she said, protecting the monument. Only about 25 people would be allowed in the concourse at a time, according to the Park Service, which is about the same number allowed in the monument at one time now.
"A terrorist has too many [more] options once they're inside a building than they have outside," the Park Service's Lorenzetti said. "And the same-sized weapon does a different type of damage outside a building than inside. We're surprised that's not understood."
Since getting concept approval last year from the National Capital Planning Commission, architects have been working on more detailed plans and the Interior Department has moved to fund the security improvements for the monument in its fiscal 2004 budget. The department's spending plan that passed the House of Representatives calls for about $20 million for the security plan; another version of the department's appropriations bill is pending in the Senate. A total cost estimate for the project has not been determined.
Much of the money outlined in the pending Interior budget would be dedicated to building the low walls around the monument to prevent vehicular access. Although the planning commission's final approval hasn't been granted, some of the landscaping would be done to accommodate the underground component of the project.
"We have to do the work in conjunction," Lorenzetti said. "It's not like this is a simple two-phase project."
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