Speaking about the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, First Lady Laura Bush remarked, “When it opened in 1796, the street was more of a mud-filled bog than a grand avenue.”
Over the next few months, the District’s most famous thoroughfare will return to its original form as it undergoes a major face-lift that city officials said will restore its beauty and increase security.
The construction has prevented passersby from viewing the rear of the White House, a traditional stop for many tourists visiting the District.
The changes are part of a new beautification project that will transform Pennsylvania Avenue into a more aesthetically pleasing pedestrian walkway.
Officials from the National Capital Planning Commission said they expect all key phases of construction to be completed by October 2004, allowing the avenue to be reopened for the Presidential Inauguration in January 2005.
Although most people agreed that the $27 million project will have long-term benefits, some tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the White House from Lafayette Park said they were disappointed with the construction.
“I had no idea it would be like this,” said Dartmouth University student Vadim Villaroel. “I think it’s sad that when I take a picture, there will be an orange cone in front of the White House.”
Chris Bender, director of communications for the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, said the project will give tourists a better White House experience in the future.
“It wasn’t very appealing,” said Bender, referring to the previous layout of the avenue, which was often cluttered with law enforcement vehicles and huge concrete planters. “People may have gotten the wrong impression of America, and this will rectify that.”
The goal of the avenue’s new design is to enhance the historic setting of the White House. When completed, the avenue will feature two entry courts on 15th and 17th streets, according to a National Capital Planning Commission document.
The avenue will be transformed into a 900-foot long plaza paved with reddish-brown crushed rock reminiscent of the walkway in front of London’s Buckingham Palace. Elm trees, granite benches and vintage-style street lamps will line the street.
Rebecca Pawlowski, media relations manager for the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation, said her office has taken no active steps to inform tourists about the construction. She could not say whether tourism in the District and White House visits has been impacted by the renovation.
While a six-foot-tall chain-link fence separates pedestrians from the avenue and obscures the view of the back of the White House, visitors can still get a clear view of the mansion’s front end near the Ellipse.
Bender said that the construction on Pennsylvania Avenue has had no effect on tourism and that many visitors will be coming to D.C. to witness the opening of a new World War II memorial in May.
He added that the project will help the city attract more tourists in the long run because a revamped Pennsylvania Avenue will be a prime destination for visitors.
“It will attract more tourists and help the city’s economy because they pump money into the District,” Bender said.
Some District officials have been pressing the government to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicular traffic. Doxie McCoy, communications director for D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, said the construction will hopefully pave the way for the avenue’s reopening.
“(Norton) is pleased with what is being done,” McCoy said. “One reason is that the project is getting rid of ugly barriers and making it more scenic.”
Since the Oklahoma City bombing in May 1995, cars have been prevented from accessing the avenue between 15th and 17th streets because of terrorism concerns.
Some of the new design’s security measures would not be affected if the avenue reopened. A combination of retractable, removable and fixed posts will replace the concrete planters. The Department of Transportation’s Crash Analysis Center at GW’s Ashburn, Va., campus conducted structural tests on the new barriers.
“Our commission had been striving to reopen the street, but after September 11, it seemed that it was unlikely that it would happen in the near future,” said Elizabeth Miller, project officer for the National Capital Planning Commission. “However, we wanted the new design to be easily reversible. If some day the situation changes, we can reopen the street to traffic easily and inexpensively.”