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Historic Capitol Hill Faces Uncharted Future

Security Needs, Business Boom Reshape Area

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page DZ10

Capitol Hill is Washington's city within a city, a neighborhood defined by its proximity to the most famous symbol of American democracy and the astonishing cross section of people drawn to live and work there.

But on this 2005 Inauguration Day, amid the pageantry that will unfold on its doorstep, the little city on the Hill is a place of jarring change.

Capitol Hill Restoration Society President Robert Nevitt, right, says barriers have brought a (Photos Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)

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As hundreds of thousands of people gather for the presidential swearing-in, they will stroll through a neighborhood where business is booming, newcomers are arriving and a prosperity unseen for decades is settling in.

Yet they will also walk streets where the ephemeral war on terrorism is setting down roots as nowhere else, spreading through a cold, sanitizing creep of security. Giant underground bunkers for the U.S. Capitol and U.S. Supreme Court have been excavated next to residential blocks with million-dollar townhouses. Concrete and steel roadblocks now line commuter routes such as Constitution and Independence avenues, chaperoning the once-easy walk to museums on the Mall. Federal police with military rifles and dogs stand guard next to bus stops, and at night a chilly glow from checkpoint floodlights washes the sky.

"I can't speak for the whole community," said Robert Nevitt, head of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, which was formed to stop freeway and urban redevelopment projects from smashing through the area 50 years ago, "but there's a sense the Capitol is part of this neighborhood. The Mall is our back yard -- okay, our front yard. That proprietary feeling has been dented.

"People in uniform are saying, 'You can't go here anymore.' People up here used to wander down on a nice summer evening, sit on the steps of the Capitol and watch the sunset -- and you can't do that anymore," said Nevitt, a retired Foreign Service officer. "I think we all understand what's going on in the world. But there is a profound sense of loss that the Capitol has been buttressed against the neighborhood that it is a part of."

On a recent unseasonably warm January morning, a few Capitol Hill residents and business people took a stroll around the U.S. Capitol, center stage for today's celebration, to offer a neighborhood-level view of the changes here since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More extreme perhaps than in the rest of the city, their experiences here still may sound familiar to everyday residents of Washington navigating a downtown increasingly fortified with concrete rings and steel fences.

The view from East Capitol and First streets captures some of what's new. The Capitol's white dome is partly hidden by a wooden fence erected around the five-acre Capitol Visitor Center construction site. The half-billion-dollar project, behind schedule for 2006 completion, was funded by Congress in the wake of 2001 security fears and marks the biggest addition to the Capitol in more than a century.

On First Street, to the north and south of East Capitol, temporary Jersey barriers, concrete pipe sections and steel posts pop up at intervals, hastily thrown up by Capitol officials after the attacks. A street next to the U.S. Supreme Court is cut off by a black steel fence with orange warning signs, where contractors say crews have dug secure underground spaces for court personnel.

At First Street north of Constitution Avenue, hydraulic-powered metal plates and temporary steel-and-reinforced-glass guardhouses form a temporary roadblock. U.S. Capitol Police sealed the street after a heightened terror alert in August, citing the threat of a truck bomb to neighboring Senate office buildings.

Up and down Constitution, orange pylons, temporary and permanent guard shacks and Capitol Police with military-style assault rifles stand at their posts. On the Capitol grounds, floodlights, police, guns and dogs are part of the landscape

Sharon C. Ambrose (D), Ward 6 council member, said constituents can't wait for the construction to end.

"It's like having a neighbor who never finishes construction on their house and disrupts the entire block because of it. Everyone is longing for the time when the Capitol will be restored and landscaped and will look the way it's supposed to look," Ambrose said.

"It looks like something out a 1950s B-movie about concentration camps," she said. "It's really ugly."

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