Panel Votes to Review Plan for World War II Memorial (The New York Times)

By Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times

The plan to build a World War II Memorial on the Mall was sent back to the drawing board today after a powerful government planning group voted to reconsider both the location and the design of the $100 million-plus project.

The 11 members of the group, the National Capital Planning Commission, decided unanimously today essentially to start over. The group’s approval is required for the project.

“We have decided to review the entire matter,” Richard L. Friedman, the commission chairman, said in a telephone interview. “We are going to review it from square one.”

Asked whether the location and the design were now up in the air, Mr. Friedman, who heads a national real estate development firm in Massachusetts, said, “Reluctantly, that is correct.”

Ever since President Bill Clinton approved the site for the memorial, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, in 1995, the project has faced fierce criticism and outright opposition, though it has broad support from leading veterans organizations, many members of Congress and Hollywood figures like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Advocates of the memorial expressed confidence that despite the new setback, the memorial would be built.

“I know that the will of several Congresses, two presidents and the American people honoring our World War II generation will ultimately prevail,” said Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio, who introduced legislation to build the memorial.

Opponents say the memorial, if built as planned, would destroy one of the most symbolic vistas in America: the stretch of the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Critics call the design of the 7.4-acre project an aesthetic travesty, contending that its giant sunken stone plaza and reflecting pool, 56 17-foot- tall commemorative pillars, 2 four- story triumphal arches, gold stars, monumental bronze eagles, bronze wreaths and fountains are reminiscent of Nazi architecture.

Mr. Friedman, probably best known as the Martha’s Vineyard host of the Clintons, was appointed chairman by Mr. Clinton last December for a term that ends in 2005. He now finds himself in the midst of a battle not of his own making.

He emphasized that the entire matter could be resolved by Congress, a solution he favors.

“Congress could clarify the issue and moot the question by saying that the commission’s actions were in fact valid,” Mr. Friedman said.

The commission announced that it would review all six of its previous approvals made over the last six years. It has scheduled special public hearings on June 13 and 14 to allow proponents and opponents of the project to speak before the commission votes again on the project.

The commission also plans to convene a panel of leading architects and urban designers for a daylong public hearing this month to assess the wisdom and feasibility of the project. “I want the best brains in the business to help us through this process,” Mr. Friedman said at today’s public meeting.

And the commission today asked the National Park Service to construct a life-size model of the memorial at the proposed site, as it has done with other memorial projects, to help decide whether the memorial would be an architectural mistake in the heart of Washington.

After today’s vote, the World War II Veterans to Save the Mall, an organization that has opposed the current plan, issued a statement praising the action, saying, “The commission’s decision to reconsider the site of the proposed memorial is an encouraging sign that the agency is listening to the public on this important issue, and is responding.”

Today’s decision follows questions raised by the Justice Department in court last month about the validity of decisions made by the commission after the term of the previous chairman, Harvey Gantt, expired. In his two terms, Mr. Gantt often voted in support of the memorial, and he cast the deciding vote when the commission approved the memorial’s design and reaffirmed its support for the site last September.

2001 The New York Times