Kennedy Center Plaza Is Postponed
Unfunded by Congress, Project on Indefinite Hold

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that it is postponing indefinitely plans for a massive plaza that would have linked the national performing arts center with the monumental hub of the District.

The project hinged on $400 million from the federal government. That money was left out of the transportation bill passed by Congress last week.

Center officials say the plan is not dead, but that under normal highway funding procedures, the money could not be appropriated before 2009.

The plaza would have laid a broad covering over the Potomac Freeway and included paths for pedestrians and bikers leading back to the Mall. A signature element was a cascading fountain stretching four blocks toward 23rd Street NW. The project was expected to take 10 years to complete.

The architect of the plaza, Rafael Viñoly, had also been selected to design the two buildings that would have flanked the plaza, one dedicated to educational programs and exhibitions on the performing arts and the second to much-needed rehearsal space.

With this development, the city is on the verge of losing another choice project by an internationally renowned architect. The addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art by Frank Gehry was canceled earlier this summer. And the National Capital Planning Commission two months ago reversed its approval of a canopy designed by British architect Norman Foster that would have covered the interior courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building, which houses two Smithsonian museums.

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, which had approved a preliminary Viñoly design, said putting the project on hold "is a lost opportunity." The center is a destination and presidential memorial that needs attention, he said.

"The Kennedy Center occupies an important part of life in Washington, both culturally and physically," said Luebke. "And it is disappointing that possibly another high-caliber design is going into limbo."

Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president, announced in a statement the project was "on hold."

"The Center is aware that budget constraints have made it difficult for Congress to fund this particular project," he said.

The entire eight-acre complex had a hefty price tag of $650 million and, if realized, would have been the largest performing arts construction project in the country. The project was officially announced by the center in early 2001 and approved by President Bush in 2002. The legislation that gave Congress approval to start funding the project called for $400 million from the federal government. The center had to raise $250 million from private sources and had received one gift of $100 million from philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds.

James V. Kimsey, a Kennedy Center trustee, said he was disappointed at the apparent loss of the plaza project. He said he understood that Congress had to make tough choices with the war in Iraq and the president's demand for a tight budget. "Well, it is not anything that hasn't been expected. This would have been a wonderful project for the city, and as a native Washingtonian, I am disappointed," Kimsey said.

The expectation that Congress would find a way to fund the plaza project was based on steady support from both houses. Congress had approved $16.5 million over the years for feasibility and engineering studies. As recently as fiscal 2004, Hill supporters gave the center $6 million to continue preliminary studies.

However, the plaza project was swamped by the tide of cutbacks produced by a wartime economy. And the overall supply of transportation money shrank. At the initial drafting of the current transportation legislation, Democrats had pushed for $375 billion in transportation money. But that was whittled down to $286 billion. With the competition for basic spending to improve roads and bridges, the center's supporters say they weren't surprised at the project's omission.

Kenneth Duberstein, former co-chairman of the center's board, says no one should give up on the plaza project. "I have been in Washington long enough to say just wait," he said. "The plaza project is so terrific on its merits, Congress will get around to it one of these days. It means not today, not tomorrow, but maybe the day after. There is a lot of support for it."

The Kennedy Center has been awash in construction for a decade. It has overhauled its performance halls, entrances and exits. It has also expanded its parking garage and reconfigured traffic patterns. The garages are complete, and their broad roofs can be used as plazas for outdoor performances. The work on the exterior, including repositioning of the fountains and a staircase on the north side, are finished. The conversion of a film theater on the first floor into a Family Theater for children's plays should be completed by December.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company