Like many real estate decisions, the placement of the much-anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture comes down to a time-tested mantra: location, location, location.
But in this case, as was heard at a town hall-style meeting last night to discuss possible sites for the museum, the location of such a landmark can be freighted with emotion and symbolism -- good and bad.
"Historically, we find ourselves being pushed out," said Henry A. Mikell III, 76, who doesn't want the museum to be off the main part of the Mall. "I'm worried that if this museum is out of sight, it is also out of mind."
Mikell, who worked security for 38 years at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, joined about 80 other people who went to the meeting at the National Museum of Natural History to tell the Smithsonian's decision-makers where the long-neglected story of African American culture should be told in that precious national space.
Supporters such as Mikell want the museum to be in a prominent space on the Mall, but they also want it to be a grand and distinct structure that lives and breathes with activity.
The museum, estimated to cost $200 million to $300 million and projected to open in a decade, is one of the last structures that will be allowed in the Mall's newly designated no-build "reserve." Public comment was solicited at the meeting last night and is also being accepted online and by mail until late January, when the Smithsonian Board of Regents will make a decision.
Four potential sites were analyzed by William A. Brown, the executive vice president of PageSoutherlandPage, the architectural firm hired to study the locations.
Comments public and private among audience members suggested that two of the sites are less favored. The Arts and Industries Building at 900 Jefferson Dr. SW is next to the Smithsonian Castle, but Brown's report said it is the smallest and most limiting site, with an old building that doesn't allow for much expansion and would be difficult to tear down because of it carries a historic designation.
And some audience members shook their heads when they heard the report's description of trains carrying hazardous material roaring past a possible site known as Liberty Loan near the 14th Street bridge.
Many at the meeting appeared to support two of the proposals: on the Mall next to the Washington Monument at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW and on the Banneker Overlook at 10th Street SW at the foot of L'Enfant Promenade.
The site near the monument is large and prominent. The museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch, has not named a preferred site. But facing the daunting task of raising about $100 million in private donations, he said last night: "I recognize the symbolism and fundraising value of the Mall."
The Banneker Overlook, an elevated location overlooking the Potomac River, is the planned site for a statue and clock tower honoring Benjamin Banneker and has the potential for a three-story museum atop a four-level parking garage, according to Brown's report.
"It's got the largest site and that sweeping, panoramic view," said Allen Uzikee Nelson, 67, a sculptor and retired professor who attended the meeting.
Others debated the two favored sites in a dilemma faced by many home buyers: Is it better to go with a swanky, downtown address that has limited building potential? Or is it smarter to move farther out, where a water view and large lot can offer more but there is the danger of being marginalized?
"I'm torn between the [Washington] Monument location and the waterfront location," said Tanya Garner, 37, who works at the National Museum of American History. "I can see African Americans wanting to take ownership of this place, to use it as a place for family, for home, for activity. I don't want this to be limited to just a building, you know?"