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Navy Keeps A Secret in Plain Sight

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has criticized federal security projects for encroaching on life in the District, seldom lets slip an opportunity to make her point. In this case, however, Norton "is aware of what's going on but cannot comment," spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.

A spokeswoman for the planning commission, Lisa MacSpadden, referred questions to Surette, the Navy spokesman. Surette would not say whether the project is classified or whether it had a name. Nor would he say how much it cost, how many people were on the job or why it was needed. He did say that work under the temporary structures would last about four years, that it complied with local and federal safety and environmental laws and that it would have no impact on traffic.

The Navy says little about work being done at an East Potomac Park site. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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Mall preservationists say they appreciate the Navy's assurances -- as well as its efforts to protect the nation -- but decry the lack of oversight and public meetings by watchdog agencies.

"What is going on?" said Judy Scott Feldman, head of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a group of civic and professional organizations in Washington formed in 2000. "Why the Navy would be doing construction is a question . . . And if the Navy is saying it's purely a construction project, then why is it a secret?"

Temporary facilities have a way of outliving their builders, said Feldman, whose group's Web site has posted a photograph of the project. Government annexes built during World War I and II flanked both sides of the 2,000-foot-long Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument until the 1970s.

"How can we be assured that big, unattractive buildings . . . are going to be gone in a matter of months?" Feldman said. "You don't necessarily raise holy heck for one project, but the problem is the secrecy. Is this one of what could become a whole lot of projects?"

Defense officials and federal planners say when the Navy is done, a small equipment shed and mutually agreeable landscaping will leave that part of East Potomac Park looking better than it did before.

Meanwhile, digging continues injury-free after more than 300 days, directed by Clark Construction of Bethesda and Kiewit, a mining and construction firm based in Omaha, according to site contract overseer Frank Nottingham.

Some passersby expressed ambivalence about the secret project. "It doesn't sound like it's a normal procedure, but it doesn't interfere with what I'm doing," said one cyclist, who declined to give his name.

John Whaley, 38, a District pollster outfitted in fleece and Lycra for his 45-minute morning bike ride, was less sanguine. "It's a little ironic, given how hard it is to put up monuments," Whaley said, referring to controversies surrounding any addition to the Mall. "Are we destroying democracy to save it?"

Others said the project added to their sense of unease. One woman, a 46-year-old who works at U.S. Park Police headquarters nearby, said employees have been told that it is a utility project. "But we don't believe it," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "It doesn't look like utility work, does it?"

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