National Park Service Abandons Plans for Underground Visitor Center and Tunnel at the Washington Monument

Dear Coalition Friends:

It’s official! The National Park Service held a press conference yesterday to announce that it has abandoned plans for the underground visitor center and tunnel at the Washington Monument, as reported on the front page of today’s Washington Post (see below) and on the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Times (see link below).

The Washington Post also highlighted Senator Byron Dorgan’s comments in their story as their “Quote of the Day”.

Local television covered the story and the NPS Press Conference yesterday. Tom Sherwood of NBC affiliate Channel 4 WRC-TV did live coverage from the Mall.

Also, Suzanne Kennedy of ABC affiliate Channel 7 WJLA covered the story.

Both stations interviewed Chairman Judy Scott Feldman who commented that this is now a great opportunity to reevaluate the entire security plan and come up with a design that is both attractive and does not impede the open space and public uses of the Monument grounds.

On local radio, WTOP (1500 AM and 107.1 FM) in a recent Steve Eldridge interview with Judy and WMAL (630 AM) have also covered the story.

At this point in time, the barrier walls — which the Park Service says it still intends to build — make no sense without the visitor center. With throngs of visitors continuing to walk directly up to the Monument in order to enter it, the 30-inch high walls will only impede access. The Washington Times quotes Acting Superintendent Vikki Keys as stating that “final approvals” have been given to these walls. However, only the National Capital Planning Commission has approved them. The Commission of Fine Arts has not yet held the required public hearing or given its approval to the design.

CLICK HERE to see the Washington Times article titled “Washington Monument to Get Barriers.

What is a much simpler, less costly, and less intrusive alternative to the walls? Perimeter security. The Park Service should now abandon the wall scheme and, instead, locate the security barriers along the perimeter of the Monument grounds, where they will keep vehicles from getting anywhere near the obelisk. This would also eliminate the need for the 10-high wooden fences — criticized by Mayor Anthony Williams and many others — that now blight the Monument grounds.

Here is todays Washington Post story:

Washington Monument Entry Tunnel Plan Dies

By Monte Reel

The National Park Service has scrapped plans for an underground visitors center at the Washington Monument because of public and congressional opposition but will proceed with a project to replace concrete Jersey barriers with low stone walls set into a regraded landscape. A wooden fence surrounding the site will remain for more than a year, officials said.

The underground center had been pitched as a security enhancement that would allow the Park Service to screen visitors at a remote building connected to the monument by a 400-foot underground concourse. It won conceptual approval from a federal design panel last year, but preliminary construction work depended on funds in the Interior Department’s appropriations bill for next year.

Before the appropriations bill passed the Senate three weeks ago, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) attached an amendment blocking funding for work on the underground center. Park Service officials said the amendment prompted the agency to reconsider the project.

“I think there are a lot of questions that have remained unanswered on this,” Dorgan said yesterday. “The retaining walls around the monument are certainly important, and I have no problem with those, but the underground center is certainly both controversial and very expensive. The question of whether this would be a necessary and important contribution or simply a tragic waste of taxpayer money has not been answered.”

The Park Service had argued that screening visitors at a remote site would better protect the monument and that the tunnel was the most secure and efficient means of moving visitors into the obelisk. The design of the center was similar to one proposed by the Park Service in 1993 but denied congressional funding. That underground proposal — as well as others aired by the Park Service in recent decades — was not tied to security, and some critics suggested the agency was invoking security concerns to advance a long-standing pet project.

Yesterday, Park Service officials said they planned to maintain the current system of screening visitors at a temporary facility on the east side of the monument.

“It’s effective,” Vikki Keys, acting superintendent of the Mall, said of the screening system. “There are always different ways of doing things.”

But opponents of the visitors center plan during a series of hearings at the National Capital Planning Commission said the agency’s decision not to pursue the underground project proves their concerns valid.

“Now they’re saying it has been safe the way it is,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a group that has opposed the center. “This was a 30-year-old project that was trying to take advantage of the security scare.”

The underground center would have been part of a larger monument security plan that includes the stone walls, which are expected to stand 30 inches high and encircle the monument in overlapping C-shapes. Preliminary work began in August when a large wooden fence was erected around much of the monument grounds. That fence will stand for the duration of the project, which is expected to last an additional 14 to 18 months, Keys said.

The fence was erected to keep visitors safe from heavy equipment and to prevent obstructions for workers, Keys said, but it has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Park Service’s stewardship of the Mall.

Among those who have opposed the fence, which screens about two-thirds of the monument grounds, is D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). A spokesman for Williams said yesterday that the Park Service’s decision to drop the underground project should be followed by a decision to scrap the fence, which he said is too large for the landscaping project.

“The fence is an atrocity, an embarrassment and an absurdity,” said spokesman Tony Bullock. “There can’t be a reason to have a solid wood fence surrounding such a large area. The public will not tolerate this fence being up for years, which is the plan we’re now learning.”

(c) 2003 The Washington Post Company


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