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Block by Block, Access Denied

Security Just One Reason D.C. Has Moved Beyond L'Enfant

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page A01

Drive southeast on Massachusetts Avenue toward Union Station, hang a right on New Jersey and, five blocks down, it should be a smooth left onto Constitution. But suddenly at Louisiana, there are those concrete barriers, again. And parked cars where an open street should be. And officers in shorts.

Instead, go out of your way and turn right, then left on First Street NW. But there's another police officer, looking in your back seat to make sure you're not concealing explosives or terrorists. It's not a huge imposition, but life in the nation's capital is different.

"If you don't have the combination of streets and pedestrian areas, the streets lose life," architect Donald Hawkins said. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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This month's street and sidewalk closures were the result of heightened security alerts, but they were hardly the first. In fact, almost from the moment the Capitol was built, the powers that be have found reasons to close roads in the name of progress, development and the national interest.

Washington, as planned by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, has lost about 22 miles of streets over the past two centuries, most disappearing in a slow creep of small changes, block by block, over 100 years, according to local architect Donald Hawkins.

Although most of the lost miles were long gone with the advent of freeways in the 1960s, a recent rash of security-related restrictions since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has commandeered more streets than in the previous two decades, raising tempers and questions about public safety.

A historical view serves as a reminder that access doesn't really vanish overnight but disappears gradually, slowly erasing a city's flexibility and choice. Cities evolve, of course, but modern security concerns have prompted more teeth-gnashing than usual: There's an emotional cost as citizens are repeatedly told what to do and where to go.

Closing the steps and terraces on the west side of the Capitol, for example, "is like closing the rim of the Grand Canyon," said Ken Jarboe, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area. "It's one of the most awe-inspiring views in the country."

The latest losses are the result of new dictates on where it is safe to drive and park and walk as Washingtonians and visitors navigate the symbols of power that make this city a likely target. New roadblocks and checkpoints have gone up around the Capitol, diverting pedestrians as well as motorists. Traffic is choked along 17th Street near the White House, where Pennsylvania Avenue is closed. And another block has closed just north of the World Bank on H Street.

"Oklahoma City kind of started the ball rolling at a bigger level, because you took Pennsylvania Avenue out and that kind of crossed the Rubicon," said Dan Tangherlini, the District's director of transportation, who gets daily requests to seal off streets or block lanes every time there's a new terror alert. "Then September 11th opened the floodgates. The streets that are closed don't even reflect a portion of the desire for people to close streets or take lanes."

Many people seem resigned to the increased scrutiny. But longtime residents argue that the average citizen isn't equipped to sensibly evaluate such threats. And as risk-wary experts push for maximum protection, those who live with the results say the small sacrifices of public access here and there have changed not only the way Washington works, but also the pace and feel of people's lives.

"It really is a shame to see our Capitol roped off. If security measures are really necessary, are only the top leaders being protected or is the public at large really safer?" asked Joe Baghetti, a graduate student visiting last week from Johnson City, Tenn.

"Cities are about options and variety," said Hawkins, who has studied the L'Enfant design for 30 years. "If you don't have the combination of streets and pedestrian areas, the streets lose life."

Hawkins heads the historic preservation subcommittee of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy group. He layered maps over the original plan to come up with his 22-mile estimate of lost streets, not including the more recent closings around Capitol Hill. The culprit over time, he said, is a combination of railroad tracks, highways, federal office construction and decades-old security concerns.

"The hugest portion of this mileage is one little block here and another block there," Hawkins said. "There are 100-plus different closures. It's a lot of little things."

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