L’Enfant’s Limbo: D.C.’s biggest urban planning disaster has dragged a memorial down with it.
Last Tuesday, Peggy Seats came to Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D with a simple request: That the appellation “Banneker Memorial” be added to the L’Enfant Plaza Metrorail station. It’s the least the city could do, she argued, to honor the memory of America’s first black man of science.
Trouble is, there still isn’t a memorial there. As president of the single-purpose Washington Interdependence Council, Seats has been working for 14 years to properly commemorate Benjamin Banneker at Banneker Park, the oblong protuberance over the Southwest Freeway that now only holds a bland, conical fountain and some reedy trees.
The Metro-naming idea was latest hail Mary in that crusade. But even a motion to add the name “Banneker Overlook Park” failed. In explaining his opposition, ANC chairman Ron McBee said—delicately—that while he supported the memorial, it would be inappropriate to change the name of the Metro stop to commemorate something that wasn’t actually there. “This is about wayfinding,” he finished.
Seats wasn’t buying that explanation. “It’s just racism,” she said to a few allies gathered in the foyer of St. Augustine’s Church after the vote, promising never to come before the ANC to ask for anything again.
Whatever you think about changing Metro station names, however, Seats’ frustration is understandable: It’s not just a memorial to Banneker that hasn’t moved forward on 10th Street SW in 14 years (or 40 years, if you’re counting from when the park was named). It’s the entire area, which could easily contend for the honor of being modern urban design’s grandest mistake. Seats has been perhaps the most relentless advocate of doing something with L’Enfant Plaza, which since the early 2000s has been studied and studied again without any actual action.
Now, development is moving forward on the Southwest Waterfront, and plans call for a grand staircase that will bridge the highway and make the Overlook a nexus between the National Mall and the $1.2 billion new waterside complex of shops, offices, and retail. As that process plods ahead, Seats is struggling even to gain a toehold in the redevelopment of L’Enfant Plaza. All memorials take years, sometimes decades to establish—but Banneker’s, tethered as it is to a static wasteland, has been unluckier than most.
Depending on how you count, Seats’ campaign for a memorial in Banneker Park dates back almost to the birth of L’Enfant Plaza itself. She came to visit Washington in 1969 and was shocked to find that Banneker had no proper remembrance in the capital he helped design. After a career in finance in Chicago, Seats had moved here to consult for the Pentagon, but by 1996, she made Banneker advocacy her full-time job. The WIC quickly racked up successes, passing a bill through Congress in 1998 that would authorize the building of a memorial somewhere within the District. A flurry of congratulations and excited press coverage followed.
That was the high point of the effort. The National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission kiboshed the Overlook site in 1999, saying that a Banneker memorial wouldn’t draw the same foot traffic as a presidential memorial or another attraction, and instead recommended that it be placed somewhere on L’Enfant Promenade itself. Seats grudgingly accepted that compromise, and began working on an overall vision for a retrofitting the promenade, which culminated in a 2006 environmental assessment that laid out and budgeted several different scenarios, each including a memorial to Banneker.
By then, however, the WIC’s seven-year authorization to build the memorial had expired, giving Seats even less ground to stand on when advocating with federal agencies. Now it needs to be reauthorized by Congress, and that’s moving slowly. Seats blames the hubbub around the election of an African-American president for taking the air out of her drive to pass new legislation. The new bill is sponsored by Sen. Roland Burris, an Illinois Democrat whom she worked under in the 1970s and calls a “remarkable genius.” But Burris isn’t the most deft legislative operator in the Capitol, and nobody expects the bill to pass before his time in office is up this year—a fact that wasn’t lost on the National Park Service, which sent a letter to ANC 6B before its meeting last week cautioning that renaming the Metro stop for Banneker might be premature.
All the legislative maneuvering may be moot, anyway, given that the WIC never made much progress toward raising the $25 million it would take to build the memorial it envisions. The organization has pulled in about $15,000 in each of the last two years. That’s just enough to pay rent and phone bills for Seats’ office at 20th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, but it’s nowhere near enough to actually construct anything. The developers that own land next to the proposed memorial, JBG and Heyman Properties, used to support the campaign—the WIC’s website still says “sponsored by JBG”—but they haven’t donated anything lately. Neither JBG nor Heyman responded to requests for comment.
“JBG said they would never give us another penny,” Seats says. “I think all of these developers have decided amongst themselves that we are to go quietly into the sunset because they want this space, and they don’t want a black man standing up there, because as the National Capital Memorial Commission told us in 1999, this site is too important for Banneker. Which to me means too important for a black man.”
(That hasn’t stopped progress toward two other prominent sites dedicated to black history—the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial and the National Museum of African American History and Culture are moving closer to reaching their $100 million and $250 million respective fundraising goals.)
The seeming impossibility of the task hasn’t stopped Seats from thinking big. As we walk around the windswept park, she gestures grandly out to the grassy hill below known as Reservation 719, where she envisions the construction of an institute named for Banneker as well. It’ll have large windows, she says, and a highly international faculty.
Ultimately, Seats chalks some of the lack of momentum up to nefarious forces. She says that Dan Kiley, the park’s original architect, gave her all the blueprints for his projects in the District, which could be useful for moving ahead now—but they were stolen from the WIC’s offices in 2001. I asked whom she thought had taken to them.
“The saboteurs that have been working to discourage us from continuing this endeavor,” Seats answered matter-of-factly. “I don’t name any names. But, very powerful people, and their flunkies.”
L’Enfant Plaza, designed by the celebrated I.M. Pei, wasn’t supposed to be quite the unmitigated urban planning disaster it’s turned out to be. Originally, plans called for the Kennedy Center to inhabit the southern end, anchoring a retail corridor with an unobstructed view to the Smithsonian Castle on the northern end. But developer William Zeckendorf went bankrupt working on that design, and a new location was found for the Kennedy Center. In 1970, the monolithic Forrestal Building was dumped across the north end, housing thousands of U.S. Department of Energy workers and visually isolating the promenade from the rest of the city’s monumental core.
In the last 10 years, any number of well-meaning fixes have been proposed. In 2005, the National Children’s Museum was about to close a deal to move to the site, but the shifting timeline of JBG’s renovations to its buildings at L’Enfant Plaza derailed that plan. The 10th Street Overlook location has since been proposed as the locations of the National Museums of the American Latino and African American History and Culture, but major museums for large ethnic groups tend to accept nothing less than Mall-front real estate.
City and federal planners have recognized the need to turn the L’Enfant promenade into a green, walkable avenue for almost a decade now; the 2006 environmental assessment that Seats participated in called for bike lanes, street trees, and other furnishings of comfortable urban places. But only the barest of maintenance has been done; the bricks on the median are still crumbling. Between the increasingly decrepit state of L’Enfant Plaza itself and the hulking office buildings surrounding the site, the area has nothing like the street-level vibrancy that’s now in vogue in city planning.
Even progress on private land has run into muck. In late September, Heyman Properties sued JBG over its plan to build a 12-story office building in the center of L’Enfant Plaza, saying it would disrupt foot traffic to the area. (An observer might wonder what foot traffic Heyman is referring to, but perhaps it’s the aspiration that counts.)
The latest effort to do something with the non-neighborhood neighborhood comes in the form of the National Capital Planning Commission’s 10th Street Task Force, which is looking at turning the entire 11-block area into an “eco-district” that incorporates advanced energy infrastructure, different modes of transportation, and a mix of open space. Residential buildings are expected to be incorporated, which would significantly change the feel of an area that turns into a ghost town at night. In line with a new federal drive to make the government’s unfriendly buildings engage the street, they’re contemplating adding new store frontage to the concrete-faced office complexes nearby, if not knocking them down altogether.
“This area is so bad that all of those strategies that we’ve identified could work here,” says Bill Dowd, the NCPC’s director of physical planning. “It’s just a matter of deciding which things are most effective.”
Memorials are part of the planning—but only locations, not content. It’s still up to Seats to land a spot in the new, eco-friendly L’Enfant Promenade. After a decade of wrangling with private developers, city agencies, and federal authorities, Seats knows that pinning your hopes for a memorial to a relatively obscure figure in a place with as much inertia as L’Enfant Plaza is a risky gamble. Because so far, I.M. Pei’s creation has doomed everything it touched. CP