Down With Those Ugly Concrete Barriers

Finally, US takes steps to safeguard Pennsylvania Avenue permanently

Edna Varner is one of the few people who will speak kindly of the concrete barriers that protect the White House from truck bombs.

To her, the dozens of concrete planters provide security not only for the White House occupants, but also for her 37 rambunctious eighth-graders.

"We don't have to worry about street traffic. It's safer," says the teacher from Chattanooga, Tenn.

The rest of Washington, however, does not share her enthusiasm. Derided as the cause of increased traffic, flagging business, and falling tourism in the area, the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue has been a sore spot since it was shut down two years ago. But after much talk and a year-long environmental assessment, the government is starting to move forward on a more permanent plan for America's most famous stretch of road.

Due out early next month, the new study seeks to measure the impact the street closing has had on area traffic, businesses, parking, and "about everything else you can think of," says a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, the agency charged with developing a plan. Officials will use the study to mitigate as many of the negative effects as possible when a final renovation plan for the area is selected.

The environmental assessment will help determine which of several designs the National Park Service will implement. Of the half-dozen options on the short list, the so-called preferred plan will cost roughly $40 million. It would transform the barren roadway into a curved street, lined with brick sidewalks and crosswalks. New fountains would blend Lafayette Park into the front lawn of the White House, creating a continuous lawn known as President's Park.

The street was originally closed after a string of events, ranging from a plane crash on the White House lawn to the Oklahoma City bombing, heightened security concerns. At that time, a Treasury Department study, which already contained a strong recommendation that the street be closed down, was well under way.

The task now is to maintain security while improving aesthetics. Under the preferred plan, security features would be more subtle. The plain concrete posts that now line the avenue would be replaced with ornamental metal posts, known as bollards. The posts are buried almost two stories underground, giving them unusual strength. "You wouldn't want to drive a truck over them," explains Park Service spokesman Dave Barna.

If the plan is compatible with the environmental assessment, it will get the green light and work will begin as soon as Congress appropriates the funds. It is a project the Park Service is eager to complete.

"We are basically the government's outdoor interior decorators," says Mr. Barna "We have a twofold mission: protect the site and make the visit [to the White House] enjoyable ... so the tourist isn't standing out in a shutdown six-lane road."

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