A view from the West Campus viewpoint on the historic grounds of St. Elizabeths hospital, soon to be the new home for Homeland Security and other military installations.
A view from the West Campus viewpoint on the historic grounds of St. Elizabeths hospital, soon to be the new home for Homeland Security and other military installations.
The Washington Post
Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a June 4 Arts article incorrectly said that Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in front of the White House in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was closed in 1995, as stated in the article.
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Security and the Narrow View

St. E's never has been terribly accessible to the public, and has been shut down tight in recent years. The abandoned historic buildings of the west campus are going slowly to ruin behind boarded-up windows. Thus, this extraordinary view is not familiar to many outsiders.

But once you've seen it (as I did for the first time perhaps 20 years ago), you don't forget. From there, a viewer can get a true understanding of the ring of hills that frames downtown, as well as of the monumental core -- the famous "topographic bowl" that Pierre L'Enfant utilized so brilliantly in his plan for Washington 205 years ago.

Furthermore, it is a place of inestimable potential when admired from other sites in the city. Today, you have to know where to look. (Search for the two striped smokestacks that peek above the green ridge.) But, as foreseen several years ago by the National Capital Planning Commission in its Memorial and Museums Master Plan, the Point is an ideal location for a "large-scale, dramatic commemorative feature, to be appreciated from afar."

For years, politicians, planners and citizens have discussed ways to bring the city's "forgotten half," east of the Anacostia River, into focus. And this is the perfect place to make the point indelibly. Nothing too elaborate, mind you -- just an elegant marker we could all learn to love.

Alas, none of that will happen if the federal government, which owns the 176-acre west campus, continues with its plans. The basic proposal: to transform the west campus into a headquarters compound for the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security.

Carrying out such plans would involve developing 4.5 million square feet -- a Pentagon-size allotment. Although most of the older buildings would be renovated as common facilities for eating and meeting, adding so many buildings would alter the bucolic character of the place -- and not for the better. And although federal planners emphasize the economic benefits to needy neighborhoods nearby, one has to wonder how much good such a self-enclosed compound would do.

But the worst aspects of the federal plans -- from the point of view of public access to the Point and its future as a symbol of Washington's unity -- are the proposed military-style security arrangements.

There would be no public access to the Point. Much of the compound would be surrounded by fences (incorporating the historic brick and stone wall along Martin Luther King Avenue), and buildings would be set back a minimum of 100 feet from the borders. (Or, if built within that line, they would be "hardened" to withstand explosives. In other words, they'd be bunkers, designed to look sort of normal.)

As a sop to the public, the plans show a public viewing point about halfway up the hill, to which visitors would climb by foot. Without substantial cutting, the second-rate view from this non-point would be blocked by trees. Fundamentally, this is an outrage, and we shouldn't stand for it.

There is a whole lot, in fact, we shouldn't be standing for these days. Security consultants are riding high outside and inside the government. Security studies and guidelines abound. The process of providing physical security to our buildings predictably has become bureaucratized. We put up a fence or a row of bollards in one place, and suddenly everybody wants the same.

The Office of Personnel Management, for instance -- housed in the Theodore Roosevelt Building at 1900 E St. NW -- not too long ago devised an idea for a perimeter security system: Surround the building with an eight-foot-high fence.

Not quite so drastically, the General Services Administration has proposed a system of bollards and hardened benches to surround the Lafayette Building, on several busy downtown streets (L, H and 16th and Vermont Avenue NW). The building houses the Export-Import Bank and several bureaus of the Department of Veterans Affairs, though most local strollers know it because of the popular Loeb's New York Delicatessen at 15th and H.

Fortunately, such proposals are subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. The NCPC, in particular, is armed with its own 2002 National Capital Urban Design and Security Plan, giving the commission the muscle to curb excesses -- that eight-foot fence, for example, was turned down flat.

But the wrestling continues about those and many similar proposals at meetings of both agencies, neither of which has the power to just say no.

Yes, there have been design successes. The stone walls that oval the Washington Monument protect it from vehicle-delivered explosives, and yet lie lightly in the land. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House remains closed to traffic but, thanks largely to the NCPC, it is much more attractive and open than it was for almost a decade after President Bill Clinton shut it in 1995.

Those successes, though, are far outweighed by dramatic examples of fortification. The Capitol and its grounds are ringed by permanent bollards. The building's great west esplanade, with its nonpareil views of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, remains closed to the public. South of the White House, E Street -- an important crosstown connector -- stays firmly closed to traffic.

And here we are, thinking about turning St. Elizabeths, with its great potential, into a closed camp.

Security creep remains alive and well in our fair city, week by week making it less open and fair.

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