For nearly seven years, as Washington area folks know only too well, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House has been the sorriest-looking major street in the world -- a barricaded parking lot for police vehicles.
But by Inauguration Day 2005, if all goes as sponsors of a new plan expect, this crucial stretch of street will have been transformed into a genuine public place.
Not a real street, mind you, not a lively urban boulevard, but a place with some dignity and worthiness. A place you could take your out-of-town family to without embarrassment -- with, possibly, a certain feeling of pride.
Anyone who reacts distrustfully, however, should be readily pardoned. We've all heard this tune before. There have been scads of plans in the years since President Clinton closed this segment of the avenue to vehicular traffic, and nothing has been done.
This time around, thank goodness, it really should be different. A competition-winning design by Cambridge, Mass., landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, initially unveiled last year and painstakingly refined over the past several months, proposes a few rather simple but potentially transformative changes.
The panoply of planters and pop-up barriers that now mar Pennsylvania at 15th and 17th streets NW? Gone. The little informal parking lot at 15th Street? Gone. Those lumpy concrete security stumps on the south side of the avenue? Gone. The security vehicles randomly parked all along the way? Gone, presumably. The inescapable feeling one gets of being a trespasser in what should be an attractive public space? Gone, one hopes.
Van Valkenburgh's approach to transforming the space is straightforward. His design does not try to hide the fact that this is a secure zone, but it does seek to welcome people into it, make them feel at home. Nor does his plan attempt to disguise the openness and size of the space. Rather, it embraces these attributes in an orderly, quietly celebratory way.
In place of the cluttered security entrances at 15th and 17th streets we would see a double row of steel bollards, some of them retractable. A guardhouse at each intersection would be shifted south from the present, central position.
A single row of street trees would frame these entry spaces on the north. Double rows of trees on the southern edges likewise would help shape the spaces, and would subtly reinforce the sunken entry courts of both the Treasury Department and Eisenhower Executive Office Buildings. The paving would be the same in both areas -- very big, light-toned granite blocks.
The center of the design, between Madison and Jackson places, would remain entirely open -- an 84-foot-wide pedestrian "avenue" bordered on the north by Lafayette Square and on the south by a single row of newly planted trees. The north-south visual axis linking the presidential portico with the Andrew Jackson statue and 16th Street would remain open.
Most noticeably, this central section would be paved with a stabilized crushed stone of a soft, earthen hue (think the granular surface of the Mall pathways, but made of smaller stones that you can't kick). Jackson and Madison places would receive the same treatment, uniting this new, hard-edged zone with informal Lafayette Square.
Van Valkenburgh is trying to do a lot with a little here. How it turns out depends on a number of factors -- but more on that in a bit. The fact is, this plan is very likely to get built because, unlike all the others that came before, it has at least grudging support from all of the myriad parties with an official stake in the precious terrain.
It took months of intensive consultation, says Patricia Gallagher, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, but in the end all signed off. The list of approvals encompasses federal and local security organizations, transportation officials and historic preservation interests, along with key federal stakeholders such as the National Park Service.
Most importantly, it includes the White House, the mayor's office and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). The city and national governments have been at odds over the avenue's future from the day the closure took place. Norton, sensibly, used her influence in Congress to block anything that smacks of making that closure permanent.
But the impasse is now at an end. Van Valkenburgh and three other landscape architecture firms invited to participate in last year's competition were told not to plan anything that could not be rather easily taken away, to ensure that the avenue could be reopened to vehicles in the future.
And then, over the last few months, the winning design was subjected to a sort of reversibility test -- anything that even hinted at permanence was changed or removed. For instance, an orderly row of trees Van Valkenburgh had proposed to be planted in the vehicular right-of-way on the north side of the avenue -- effectively narrowing the street -- was shifted to the avenue's south side.
Historic preservationists had a big impact on the final proposal as well. The Cambridge designer, for example, envisioned a separate lane on the north side of the avenue for the proposed downtown circulator -- a hop-on, hop-off shuttle bus. But the circulator, if it ever materializes, will make its gentle way without the special zone, for the dedicated lane was removed to preserve the avenue's historic width.
Only after these and other adjustments was the plan deemed ready for prime time. It will go before the planning commission for concept approval on March 12, and to the Commission of Fine Arts after that.
Funds have been allocated, too. There is $6.1 million for testing and design development in the current federal budget, and $15 million for construction is included in the president's 2004 budget request. Clearly, a press is on to get this done by January 2005, in time for the inaugural parade.
How this turns out, as I said, depends. The reviewing agencies will have to resist the temptation to take out this or that major element. Some tinkering with details may be in order. In particular, the revised circulation pattern, with main vehicle check points shifted away from 15th and 17th streets to the northern extremities of Madison and Jackson places, bears close scrutiny. Basically, however, this is a sensitive, intelligent plan that's already been trimmed to bare bones.
Security forces that now patrol this zone will have to experience a change of heart -- and tactics. They will have to cease throwing up crowd-control fences every other day, for example, and stop parking their vehicles here, there and everywhere on the avenue. There simply has to be a better way to maintain vigilance and deterrence while, at the same time, transforming this area into a gathering place of the democracy.
Then there is the related issue of crosstown traffic. This plan may not be permanent, but neither is it a short-term quick fix. The powers that be, especially in the White House and Congress, must give urgent consideration to the reopening of E Street, south of the White House, and to the long-term possibility of a crosstown tunnel.
Finally, the long-term future of Lafayette Square and its immediate environs must become the focus of serious study.
The area desperately needs an infusion of urban "life and joy," in the words of John Carl Warnecke, the California architect who, back in the Kennedy era, helped mightily to save the park's surrounding historic structures from destruction.
Warnecke has a plan to convert these 19th-century structures from government offices to "restaurants featuring the food, history and music of different eras" and other public uses. Warnecke's Williamsburg-like vision may be off, but the direction of his thought is right on. It deserves long-term attention.
The future is now, however, for Van Valkenburgh's uncluttered design. In a daring yet appropriate way it mediates between the needs of security and openness. It needs, and deserves, all the help it can get.