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Statement of Committee of 100 on the Federal City and
The National Coalition to Save Our Mall

On the Concept Design
Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House

Before the National Capital Planning Commission
March 12, 2003

Mr. Chairman and members of the Commission, my name is George Oberlander, a retired former 31-year staff member of this Commission. Today I am representing two community organizations very much concerned with the planning and historic preservation of our National Capital, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

You have previously heard from these two groups about their opposition to restricting public vehicular traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets, NW. The environmental documentation and historic preservation process currently underway for this project design, (by the Federal Highway Administration in cooperation with your staff, the DC Dept. of Transportation, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service), explicitly states that "Actions taken…to restrict public vehicular traffic…will not be reevaluated for this project". This is very unfortunate and in our judgment pre judges and compromises the environmental and preservation processes.

Although the Federal Highway Administration is taking this approach, the Commission is not precluded from re-examining its position on the vehicular traffic issue on the Avenue. We strongly urge you to give further consideration of the impacts of closing the Avenue to traffic in the central area beyond the criteria of including a Circulator and permitting the possible future reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue. Such consideration should include alternatives as partial closing and/or closing to large/tall (truck) vehicles, which really are the primary concern.

Some time ago, nationally recognized Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore FAIA, a member of the Committee of 100, discussed these and other security concepts with your staff and security representatives. He is still willing to work with the Commission and its staff to further elaborate on these alternatives. There are current security technology devices that should be examined and tested if need be.

The "Traffic Alternatives Analysis" prepared for the Commission in October 2001 did include an At-Grade Alternative, which would re-open the closed portion of the Avenue. This At-Grade Alternative provides less traffic delays than the recommended No Build with Transportation System Management (TSM) Strategies.

I believe you know that the White House was strengthened during the Truman Administration with steel girders, steel reinforced concrete and stronger window glass. It is set back from the Avenue over 300 feet and at much greater distances from 17th, 15th and E Streets. An additional option in regulating traffic could include weight sensitive gates on the Avenue, and if needed, on E Street.

As you also know, the segment of the Avenue in front of the White House is designated a contributing element of the historic street plan of Washington DC. Any physical change in the character and/or function of the street must be evaluated within this unique historic character designation. For the processes to be complete and adequate, and for the Commission to be able to make well informed independent findings and recommendations upon which design approvals may be granted, securing the White House with a re-opened to through traffic Pennsylvania Avenue should be among the alternatives equally examined.

The project as presented to you today, is defined as, or limited to "the development and evaluation of alternatives to create a pedestrian-oriented, landscaped civic space on the Avenue, and improve the appearance at H Street and Jackson and Madison Places". This appears to us to be a very subjective limited approach.

There are numerous, now considered more secure, Federal public buildings in Washington DC that are closer to existing vehicular traffic streets than the White House. Examples are the Old Executive Office Building along 17th Street (now named the Eisenhower Office Building) and the Treasury Dept. building along 15th Street. The standoff distance of these buildings is much closer than the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue.

The security agencies have to be able to find a threat standoff design solution for the White House that does not require restricting all public traffic on the Avenue from 15th to 17th Streets.

This statement will not repeat the comments made earlier on the security issue(s) or the traffic impacts, except to refer to the on-file statements made by the Committee and the current concerns of the Coalition.

The concept design before you addresses the Commission`s Task Force design criteria established in "The National Capital Urban Design and Security Plan" approved in October 2002. The design criteria require, among others, (page 4 of the EDR) that the proposal:

  • Respect and enhance the historic setting and views of the White House
  • Reflect a clear memory of Pennsylvania Avenue`s historic use.

The Plan`s criteria did not provide any guidance as to how the White House and its occupants could be made secure enough from terrorist bomb threat standoff without restricting traffic on the Avenue. This is a major shortcoming of the Security Plan.

Today's concept design has been improved, within the street's historic setting, from the earlier October 2002 design. However, the current concept segments the civic space it tries to redesign into three portions containing monolithic granite paving slabs and penetration macadam with stabilized crushed stone on top. Segmenting the right-of-way in this manner tends to reduce the streetscape appearance and extent of this space as a continuing monumental street image or vision.

In addition, the security booths have no relationship to the Avenue`s historic character or memory.

The concept suggests a double row of trees on the south side of the Avenue in front of the Eisenhower and Treasury Buildings. Why is this needed? The only explanation given is it would "create an invitational space with a strong perspective draw towards the sidewalk in front of the White House". The perspective draw should be the entire length (1600 feet) and width (140 feet) of the Avenue from 17th to 15th Streets or the reverse. The extra row of trees will only add clutter and obstructions, particularly if yet unspecified additional pedestrian amenities are provided. One continuous row of trees on the south side and one row of trees in front of the Renwick Gallery and the Treasury Annex and Riggs Bank buildings would articulate the Avenue as it was formally made a public street in 1824.

Replanting the historic singular row of trees directly in front of the White House is very appropriate. However, it is necessary to relate this row of trees to the location (width) of the presidential inaugural parade-reviewing stand and the axis cross views from 16th Street. Has this been done? The scale of the drawings in the booklet does not make this clear.

The other concern is the variety of bollard designs proposed within this portion of the Avenue. The Commission has identified contextual areas, monumental streets and memorials within the comprehensive urban design and security plan. The purpose of this approach is to "ensure that improvements along streets are complementary and enhance the special character of each precinct, while addressing the required security measures for individual buildings".

Along this special portion of monumental Pennsylvania Avenue, it seems to us, all bollards should look alike. Having different designs for fixed verses removable bollards and the existing bollards to remain, adds visual confusion, and creates additional visual attraction and attention as well as street clutter. The necessary special or different types of bollards do not have to be expressed in different designs. One uniform (simple) design should be able to provide for the different functions. For operational needs, either subtle pavement markings or special (bollard) markings can identify vehicle lanes in front of retractable bollards.

Any physical change to the Avenue should not intrude into the primary open historic street character whether or not it has vehicles traversing it.

To conclude and summarize our concerns, they are:

  •   We continue to be opposed to restricting public vehicular traffic to Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the White House.
  •   Not including the alternative of reopening traffic on the Avenue pre judges and compromises the environmental and historic preservation documents and process.
  •   There must be a security design solution to protect the White House, its occupants and grounds that would alter the current temporary appearance and function of the Avenue into an aesthetic historic streetscape.
  •   The design solution should not only try to create a pedestrian-oriented landscaped civic space but reflect the historic streetscape in keeping with security needs.
  •   The design solution for the central part of the Avenue should not be incorporated into Lafayette Park. (The new paving tries to unify the Avenue with the Park).
  •   The design solution currently segments the 1600-foot portion of the Avenue. The design should re-establish the Avenue as one complete and continuous entity.
  •   One row of trees only, on the north and on the south, in their original locations, will better re-establish the historic character of the street.
  •   One uniform (simple) design for the proposed bollards should be able to provide for the different bollard functions.
  •   Re-grading the Avenue, as proposed, must include the preservation of the healthy and mature trees.
  •   The primary open historic streetscape (memory) character should be maintained whether or not the Avenue (a street with its normal characteristics) has vehicles traversing on it. (The staff EDR makes that clear on page 16). "…and to ensure that the two-block length remains physically, visually, and symbolically linked to the rest of the city's street plan."
  •   In the EDR, we suggest moving above the asterisks, the recommendation concerning the security booths and bollards, found in the evaluation on page 12.
  •   We also suggest moving the recommendation concerning the route of the Circulator (page 16) above the asterisks.
  •   We agree with the Commission`s Security Plan comprehensive approach to "ensure that improvements along streets…are complementary and that they enhance the unique character of each precinct while accommodating the special security needs of individual facilities". The concept design before you today has not yet reached the approved plan's standard.
  •   We strongly concur with the staff initial determination (page 20 of the EDR) that the proposed design "will have adverse effect on historic resources…". The 106 process will determine if the adverse effect identified can be mitigated.

Thank you for considering the views of the Committee of 100 and the Coalition to Save the Mall. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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• The NCPC's Urban Design and Security Plan
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• Surveillance Cameras
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