By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Imagine the drab fortress of the FBI building gone, the freeways and ramps around the Kennedy Center covered by parks and boulevards, and a Metro stop near the Jefferson Memorial.
Picture the middle section of the massive Forrestal building on Independence Avenue removed to open views of the Smithsonian Castle, a canal cut through East Potomac Park, new water taxi service, boardwalks, memorials, pedestrian bridges and leafy vistas.
The "monumental core" of Washington's future is more open and inviting, less fettered and cut up by highways and railroads, and more integrated into an elegant whole under a sweeping vision to be unveiled today by the District's two federal planning and review agencies.
The National Capital Framework Plan is highly critical of much of the 1960s and 1970s-era construction that surrounds the Mall, at turns calling it "hostile," "unwelcoming" and "imposing."
It envisions four transformed sections of downtown Washington as extensions of the Mall, linking such locales as the White House with the riverfront and the Kennedy Center with the Lincoln Memorial.
The plan, which has been two years in the making, is the work of the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. It is a mix of new and old ideas, some versions of which have been floated before and died for lack of congressional funding.
Many of the suggestions would require enormous sums of money at a time when the national economy is faltering, and they could take decades to accomplish.
But the plan's authors say some of the smaller goals are more affordable, other improvements could be made as current infrastructure wears out, and public opinion could influence Congress.
"There are some . . . big ideas in the plan," said Elizabeth Miller, the planning commission's project manager. "What we've got to realize is it's going to happen over time."
The plan can be viewed at www.ncpc.gov. Public comments can be sent to email@example.com until Oct. 10. The plan will be the topic of a public meeting at 5 p.m. July 22 at planning commission headquarters, 401 Ninth St. NW.
"We've seen over the last few years the city is on the brink of a major transformation," said Marcel Acosta, the commission's executive director. "If many of the things are done in this plan, it's going to lead to a major change in how people view this portion of our nation's capital."
It is unclear how much support the plan will have, but the early reaction has been positive.
"We commend the National Planning Commission for its far reaching vision for Washington D.C., and are pleased to have participated in the process," Claudette Donlon, the Kennedy Center's executive vice president, said in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to the day when their vision can be implemented."
Harriet Tregoning, director of the District's Office of Planning, said, "I think it's a great plan, just a very thoughtful, far-reaching plan. I think the challenge is going to be which one of these pieces ends up moving first."
John E. "Chip" Akridge, chairman of the Trust for the National Mall, said he had not had a chance to study the plan in detail but added, "Generally my interest is more in fixing what's there now." The trust raises private money for maintenance and improvements to the Mall.
The four areas studied for the plan were the Northwest Rectangle, roughly from the Kennedy Center to 17th Street; the downtown Federal Triangle; the Southwest Federal Center, south of the Mall; and East Potomac Park, between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel.
The plan emphasizes the idea of connecting the four sections to the Mall and to each other, and eliminating barriers.
It suggests, for example, decking over the odd "spaghetti bowl" highways, such as the Potomac Freeway, which is east of the Kennedy Center and cuts off the arts complex from the city.
The plan criticizes much of the area's post-World War II highway and building construction: "Urban renewal, hailed as cutting edge by many at the time, reflected Modernist design principles that have proven to undermine vibrant urban life."
It points in particular to the vast bleak government office structures such as the FBI building, built on Pennsylvania Avenue in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Energy Department's James V. Forrestal building, at 10th Street and Independence Avenue SW.
The FBI building's "unornamented International Style architecture exacerbates a fortress-like presence," the plan says. "If in the long term the FBI is able to better fulfill its mission . . . elsewhere in the District, redevelopment of the site would significantly contribute to the rejuvenation of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Of the Forrestal building, which spans 10th Street at Independence, the plan notes that it is part of the 40-year-old Southwest federal complex, which is "dominated by superblock buildings and lacks street life, retail activity and green space."
The plan suggests removing the section of the Forrestal building straddling the street to reestablish a north-south connection between the Mall and the waterfront.
"One of the things that we're . . . trying to do is improve these very important federal areas around the Mall in a way that takes some of the vibrancy of the city, and capture that into these quadrants," said Acosta, of the planning commission. "These areas today are 9-to-5 places."
Thomas Luebke, secretary of the arts commission, said each of the four sectors has elements of beauty, culture or art: "It's just a question of connecting the dots."
In the Northwest Rectangle, the plan suggests building staircases to the riverfront from the Kennedy Center's west terrace.
In the Federal Triangle area, which the plan describes as "a monotonous public realm," the document suggests a "federal walk" that would direct visitors on a tour of the sculpture and architecture. The triangle contains one of the largest collections of 20th-century sculpture in the country, the plan says.
In the Southwest rectangle, the plan imagines 10th Street as a broad, tree-lined promenade linking the Mall and water, with a new museum and other buildings at the southern overlook and a grand staircase down to the Washington Channel waterfront.
In East Potomac Park, the plan calls for a Metro stop near the Jefferson Memorial, where the Yellow Line passes, a canal to improve boat navigation from the channel to the river, and a series of bridges and a boardwalk to improve access from the city to the park.
"When you think about the nation's capital, you think of the Mall," said Miller, of the planning commission. "We want people . . . when they think of the capital of the United States of America to think of the city."