Monument visitor center faces criticism

Visitors to the Washington Monument may soon notice changes to its surrounding grounds with the possible addition of a visitor center.

The National Park Service, which oversees of the Mall and monuments, is renewing efforts to install an underground visitor screening center and concrete barrier around the monument. The idea of a visitor center, which was first proposed in 1966, was reintroduced by NPS in July 2002 and has since become a high priority.

The proposal has secured preliminary approval from the National Capital Planning Commission. But it has met considerable resistance from the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, an organization that fights development on the Mall led by former AU art history Professor Judy Scott Feldman.

The underground facility would be the perfect place to house a museum about the life of George Washington, a bookstore and also as a way of controlling crowd flow, according to the National Park Service Web site. Revised plans were put forth in 1993, but failed to receive funding and the idea was set-aside until 2001, according to the Washington Post.

Revised plans called for permanent security improvements and differed from previous plans only in the addition of metal detectors and a three-foot tall concrete wall ringing the monument.

The existing monument lodge to the east of the monument would be enlarged to 16,000 square feet to accommodate the entrance to an underground tunnel that would run west for 230 feet to meet the base of the monument. The lodge currently holds a concession stand, rest rooms and NPS offices.

Visitors would be screened for weapons before entering the tunnel. A bookstore, theater and interpretive center would be along the underground concourse, which would potentially have blast doors for the event of an explosion.

The floor of the monument would be lowered to meet the tunnel. Above ground, a wall 30 inches in height and set 400 feet from the monument would act as protection from explosive-laden vehicles.

The necessity for such a structure has been widely criticized.

Engineers have expressed doubt that hand-carried explosives could significantly damage the monument's 15-foot thick walls, but adding a tunnel to the base of the monument would only increase the risk. It is also unclear whether soil around the base of the monument would be damaged by excavation to install the tunnel.

Feldman said that the proposal "takes the most prominent symbol of our nation and surrenders it to terrorism threats." She called fortified monuments a "blatant display of fear in the face of terrorism."

The Mall "as envisioned in 1791...[is a] symbol of our open and free society, and walls diminish this symbol," Feldman said.

Before the structures can be built, the NCPC and Commission of Fine Arts have to give their final approval.

So far, the NCPC has given the green light for the above-ground wall and concept approval for the visitor center and tunnel. Preliminary and final approval must still be given for the underground structures to be built.

The Commission of Fine Arts has not given approval for any changes.

The Park Service had hoped to begin construction in March 2003 with completion in June 2005. Design is being handled by D.C.-based architects Hartman and Cox, and expected to cost at least $40 million.

More than $4 million has already been spent to assess and plan the proposals.

Feldman said there are alternatives to the proposed center and barrier wall that would accomplish the same purpose. Security walls and terracing at street level, similar to that already in place at many D.C. buildings, would offer an aesthetic solution, she said. A NCPC report dated July 1, 2001 suggests the same idea, according to the NCPC Web site.

Some visitors to the monument feel that the proposed security precautions are a good idea.

"Considering modern times," the changes could be a good idea, visitor Pete Harris of Germantown, Md., said.

Other visitors to the monument thought metal detectors were a good idea, but soured at the thought of an underground tunnel that would limit the impressive experience of the monument when approached on foot.

AU sophomore Echo Propp said the monument was "a welcome post for everybody coming to D.C. It stands for a lot."

"Terrorism is going to happen anyway," she added.

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