Dispute Over Security Delays Construction

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008

A dispute over security precautions is delaying the start of construction on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, a grand monument to the slain civil rights leader slated to be built along the Tidal Basin.

Two federal agencies granted final approval of the memorial's design in September. But the National Park Service, in a disagreement with its federal counterparts, has not issued a building permit, in part because the plan does not include security measures that would prevent a vehicle from crashing into the memorial.

Ed Jackson Jr., the project's chief architect, said the inability to break ground threatens to delay the goal of completing the memorial in time for a dedication ceremony in the summer of 2010. The $120 million project would take 18 to 20 months to finish.

"Why hold it up? It doesn't make any sense," Jackson said in an interview yesterday, in between briefing civil rights leaders and the board members of his organization about the memorial's progress.

Jackson had included a security provision, 16 bollards on two pathways leading to the memorial, in the final design submitted in September to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Although the agencies approved the memorial's overall design, they rejected the security measure, saying the restrictive nature of the bollards is inconsistent with King's teachings. "It would be an embarrassment to the family and to the memory of Dr. King," planning commission Chairman John V. Cogbill III said at the September hearing, according to a transcript provided by his staff.

Peter May, a Park Service associate regional director, said the security requirement is based on the agency's evaluation of potential threats to the memorial.

"Our overriding concern is for the safety of the visitors to the memorial, and there will be very large numbers," May said. "Martin Luther King Jr. was a high-profile figure, and there are groups that are actively campaigning against the values that he espoused. We found quite a bit of that. It's a cause for concern."

The Park Service has asked the memorial's designers to submit a revised design and additional information about the project's costs and construction plans.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, the King memorial would be dominated by a sculpture of the civil rights leader carved into a 30-foot-high block of granite. The four-acre memorial would include pathways, gardens, and cherry and elm trees.

Jackson said he is anxious to begin construction in part because many of King's colleagues in the civil rights movement are advancing in age. "It's like the World War II memorial," he said. "Time is not on everyone's side. It's important to get closure."

The Rev. William Lawson, 80, a King associate who attended yesterday's meeting, said the memorial needs no security precautions.

After all, the minister said, King did not believe in separating himself from people, even in the last hours of his life, when his aides were concerned about his safety.

"This memorial needs to be open, accessible and free," Lawson said. "And there should be no fear of terror. They may do some damage, but they can't stop the dream."

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