The massive construction around the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, including a new ramp to the Potomac Expressway and its connection to the Roosevelt Bridge and I-66, has reached the end of the road.
For the first time in four years, the center has cleared away almost all the equipment, eliminated detours and removed temporary walls and fences that have festooned the center's grounds. The front is now swept and polished with two fountains churning away in front of its grand entrances.
The center now has a pristine and more formal front, and patrons can approach it by a new extension of 25th Street NW. The street winds past the front, with several outlets where cars can circle up to the front step and drop off passengers. The drive continues around the southeast corner of the center to the south entrance of the garage and the bus parking lot, which had been crowded with trash bins, trucks and construction equipment for years.
"Now the visitors get a view of the expansiveness of the building. It is a much more beautiful view of the building, looking straight at it," says Claudette Donlon, the center's executive vice president.
Disruptions around the 17-acre center go back almost a decade, when work on the garages began. Those garages were the bane of visitors, with leaks and too few spaces. Now there are 1,971 spaces (500 were added) and Donlon predicts that will be enough. "With the expansion of the garage we can accommodate the people who drive 99 percent of the time," she says. Nearly 70 percent of the people who come to the center drive, surveys show.
The roofs of the garage extensions serve as performance spaces, giving the center two vast new outdoor venues. One is 300 by 120 feet; the other is 332 by 120 feet. Both offer excellent views of monuments and the Potomac River waterfront as far as Georgetown.
Other improvements include a broad staircase facing the Watergate complex, an extended bike path that leads from the center's front to the Roosevelt Bridge and granite sidewalks, replacing the sometimes slippery marble. New bus shelters east of the center are fitted with polished wooden benches and a wavy canopy. All the roadways and sidewalks are freshly paved, and there is a circle for taxis.
"There is still curb drop-off, but with several drop-off points, you don't have as much of a stackup," Donlon says.
The center is still vast expanses of beige and white, but there are now Acoma crape myrtles on the garage-top plazas, with tables, chairs and umbrellas on the north plaza.
The center embarked on these improvements because after 35 years the front was a bit dowdy and patrons complained about the traffic patterns and inadequate parking. When the three main halls were in use, the parking spots were grabbed early in the evening. If all seven theaters are busy, there could be 6,000 people in and out of the building.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress ordered federal buildings and memorials to implement anti-terrorism measures. One result is that traffic was pulled away from the main entrance.
The Kennedy Center work cost $50 million, most of which was federal money. The construction completed this summer was not part of the center's proposed $650 million plaza project. The plaza, which would extend across a freeway and link the center with the rest of the city, was recently put on hold after Congress failed to include money for it in this year's transportation bill.