Housing Complex

L’Enfant’s Limbo: D.C.’s biggest urban planning disaster has dragged a memorial down with it.

Peggy Seats and the park she's been working on for 14 years. (Darrow Montgomery)

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

  • Skipper

    Gee, it's hard to see why Seats hasn't gotten anything accomplished when she accuses anyone who doesn't support her of being a racist.

  • HillChris

    Seriously? Racism? Give me a break, she's grasping at straws here.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Memorial or not, the madness of Metro station name extensions must stop.

  • wil

    I'm all for recognition of noteworthy African Americans like Banneker, Duke Ellington, Charles Drew, etc. However, reason has prevailed, and putting the cart before the horse with a metro name change seems to have failed. Names need to reflect reality, not push a project.

    However, I would support changing the entire name of the plaza and station to something else. It seems a grave insult to name a horrible urban renewal plaza after L'Enfant. Talk about Orwellian newspeak, L'enfant's plan is best seen at places like Dupont Circle, not where they tore apart the urban fabric to make way for 295 and Superblock brutalist federal structures.

    The current plaza name reminds me of another great historical slight, when Nicola Tesla was given the Thomas Edison Award for excellence in electrical innovation.

  • Eric

    I wholeheartedly agree with Wil.

  • Andrew

    Yeah, racism is about the dumbest argument here. I appreciate your quest, but don't be stupid about it.

  • Landon

    "all of these developers have decided amongst themselves..."

    "it's just racism"

    "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.”

    This paranoia is telling. How can WashingtonCityPaper take this seriously?

  • Anonymous

    Memorials should be banned from being in station names.

    Archives-Penn Quarter is plenty.
    U Street-Cardozo. Simple.

    DC is full of memorials and people can use tourist guides to find them. Station names should be limited to streets and neighborhoods.

    And, pretty please, for Christmas, can we remove Reagan's name and "Washington" from the station at National Airport? We already know what city we're in. Thanks.

  • Josh C.

    The whole "it's racism" argument seems pretty ridiculous. Andrew Ellicott (a white guy), who helped survey and plan the District alongside Benjamin Banneker - also has no memorial in D.C.

    Personally, I feel as though Banneker AND Ellicott should be honored - either with a joint memorial or separate memorials in close proximity to one another.

    Both men did great works for the city and are sadly all but forgotten today by the general public.

  • ZZinDC

    Although I suppose people think of different things when they use the word 'memorial', it no longer true that Banneker has "no proper remembrance in the capital he helped design" - there is a very fitting remembrance in Banneker Academic High School (800 Euclid Street NW). Banneker is one of highlights of the DC Public Schools, serving a living memorial its namesake and a wonderful representative of a system that is too often assumed to consistently disastrous. But I guess successful high schools and achieving students don't fit on postcards and metro station names as well as a statue and plaque. To each his (or her) own.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    lydia: since you were there to interview her and we weren't, could you answer this question (and if you can't, i understand—but it'd be nice to have verification of that too):

    did you get the feeling, overall, from your time with her that she really feels that racism is the base problem she's dealing with here? it sure comes up enough in this story to make one think so.

  • Landon

    Ellicot spent two years on the survey. Banneker spent less than two months working for him on the same survey.
    Banneker was black. So as to not be called a racist, I have to say he needs a memorial and a metro name in DC,

  • ZeeZee

    WOW! Did Ms. Seats say the RACIST word! Ooooh,
    50 lashes for her, and only pork rinds for dinna,
    and another 24 hours a day in the hot field picking
    cotton and planting rice!

    You hysterical, insecure bakke backlashers ought to
    get a grip. You're only cutting off your nose to
    spite your face. What you think [or do you know
    how]?

    You thought that Obama was gonna wave a magic wand,
    and dollah bills starting shooting outtah your waxed
    up ears? Did ya think that the ole dixie playing
    guitars would start strolling behind ya, and ole
    mamie and pappy start singing dem good ole spirituals?

    You idiots were real happy to get Obama elected to
    drag your sorry buts outtah the brink of total
    global economic ruin, but yet in the this age of
    instant everything that ain't good enough for ya,
    now just a nanosecond later, you want an instant fix
    on your privileged, unearned status as unroyal jerks.

    Yet you didn't have the courage to whine about being
    on a crash course to meeting your after life buddy
    in the purlee gates of hell when it was happening for eight long, long years.

    Well, yeah Ms. Seats said "RACISTS", oh, and did
    she forget to say spoiled, arrogant idiots too?

  • Lydia DePillis

    Hey Geoff,

    I do think Peggy thinks she's dealing with racism. It's not exactly the smartest card to play if you don't, right?

    There was also a lot more resentment of the lack of credit the Washington Interdependence Council has gotten for its efforts over the years than I put in.

    Also perhaps indicative: Alex Padro used to be on the board, but is no longer, and declined to say why.

    Lydia

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    thanks, lydia. i've known alex for a few years now, and really trust his judgment, so if he's distancing himself from a group, i believe he'd have a really good reason to do so.

  • ZeeZee_is_an_idiot

    ZeeZee - Um, what the hell are you talking about? Do you have any comments pertaining to the topic at hand, or are you just ignorantly spouting off insults like an ignorant three-year-old?

    Banneker assisted Ellicott - who has no memorial in the city - who was also white. If the 'racism' argument held a single drop of water, wouldn't you think there'd have been a memorial to Ellicott long ago?

    Congress approved a memorial to Banneker. It will be built at some point. Please explain how that's racist.

    Hint: It's not.

    Get a grip. Wake up and realize that having a certain skin color does NOT make you special. It does NOT make you better than anyone. And it does NOT entitle you to anything. You are nothing out of the ordinary - just a regular person. Act like one.

  • Ignacio

    How long will it take until the insane ghetto tyrones get pushed out of DC into PG and we can have a livable city? Anyone think we can get this done within the decade?

    I sure hope so.

  • Naomi J. Monk

    For Clarification and true factual information: Reference David Sobelsohn Highlights of October 18, 2010 ANC6D Meeting, 2010.

    For Clarification and true factual information:

    Reference David Sobelsohn Highlights of October 18, 2010 ANC 6D Meeting, 10/20/2010.

    ANC6D Commissioner David Sobelsohn's,

    "motion to recommend renaming the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station “L’Enfant Plaza/Banneker Park,” to indicate the park, at the south end of L’Enfant Promenade, named to honor a pioneering African-American scientist."

    Statements made that ANC6D Commissioners vote taken was for Banneker Memorial is not true.

    Three ANCD Commissioners: David Sobelsohn, Rhonda Hamilton and Roger Moffatt made the choice to vote last evening to add the name of a profound African American, Banneker Park (not Banneker Park/ Memorial) to L' Enfant Metro Stanton. It is oh so wonderful to go forward with their support.

    Four ANCD Commissioners: Ron Mc Bee, Andy Litsky, Jane Jorgensen and Robert (Bob) Siegel made the choice not to vote to add the name of a profound African American Banneker Park (not Banneker Memorial) to L'Enfant Metro Station.

    If you wish to assist in moving forward expeditious on this delightful and worthy journey to see that the name of a profound African American, Banneker is added to the L'Enfant Metro Station, please contact Patricia Bennett at patb@pipeline.com, Tel 202-492-8832; Naomi J. Monk, nmonk10501@aol.com, Tel 202-479-0442, Peggy Seats, seats@aol.com. Go to website http://www.bannekermemorial.org for more information about Benjamin Banneker.

    Sincerely,

    Naomi J. Monk
    Tel 202-479-0442

  • Naomi J. Monk

    For your information a writing found about how Banneker Circle got its name: "At the southern terminus of the L’Enfant Plaza corridor is a circular park and overlook named Benjamin Banneker Overlook Park. This park was dedicated to Banneker in 1971, during the last major gentrification cycle. This commemoration occurred as a result of the advocacy efforts of DC historian, Louise Hutchinson. Mrs. Hutchinson was successful in garnering enough steam and powerful allies, including former Washington Post publisher, Katherine Graham, and L’Enfant Plaza developer, General Pete Quesada, to sign on to help her in her quest. The park was dedicated in a ceremony during his birth month of November, in 1971, by the U.S. Department of the Interior in Banneker’s honor. It is one of only two circular parks named for an African-American in DC, with the other being Anna Julia Cooper Circle, also designated in her honor as a result of the advocacy efforts, here again, of Louise Hutchinson."

  • ZeeZee

    ignacio,

    yes, we are willing to go anywhere other than where you are -- in the biles of hell; and that's too good for you.

  • ZeeZee

    Post Script to the arrogant idiots spewing hatred on this blog. There is a memorial named for Banneker at the end of the L'Enfant Plaza promenade.

    It's a memorial, not only like the L'Enfant Memorial you claim to be a legitimate name for a memorial when it is named after L'Enfant [who, by the way, uninformed arrogant ones, did not produce the L'Enfant Plan although it was named for him, at the behest of George Washington who was embarrassed that L'Enfant did not have the skills to finish the job, so he had it named for L'Enfant to save face as he was ashamed, as slave holder himself, that a black man salvaged the project along with the overall Project Manager of the charge, Major Andrew Ellicott].

    However, Banneker's sole assignment was to be in the tent, maintaining the accuracy of the ephemeral clock, observing the celestial bodies, to determine the perimeter [carved out by the 40 boundary stones], the Meridian [16th St.] and the location of major astronomical nodes of power [the White House, Capital, Washington Monument and Treasury Building].

    I know that this is a little too deep for you arrogant racists out there; but tell me this, why is L'Enfant Plaza a memorial and the six acre park named for Banneker at adjacent to it at its terminus not a memorial?

    And why should the Metro stop be named for L'Enfant and not for Banneker when the two memorials are adjoined and Banneker's memorial was officially named for him in 1970 by the U.S. Dept. of Interior and dedicated to him by the National Park Service as was L'Enfant Plaza?

    Yet, you guys are not bigots, not racists, not immature a@@ holes. And what else did L'Enfant do of note such as engineer the first all American made clock that struck every hour on the hour for a half a century, or author amongst the first almanacs in American history, or be the first scientist to document the 17 year locust cycle, or recommend a Dept. of Peace [something you ruffians wouldn't understand], or author the first eloquent and on point Protest Letter [which is as much applicable in its commentary today as it was over 200 years ago], or have a successful and unblemished appointment working for the first presidential appointed commission literally salvaging the creation of the first created capital in modern history? Did L'Enfant make those contributions or was he terminated for incompetency? Or............ were those among a long laundry list of contributions that Banneker made, including being the creator of the financial instrument currently called the "Reverse Mortgage." Do you know any elders whose home was saved or their lifestyle improved because of a "Reverse Mortgage?" I bet you do, but I digress.

    L'Enfant Plaza which is adjoined to Banneker Overlook Park is a "memorial." However, Banneker Overlook Park, a six acre park which is at its terminus, according to you geniuses, is not a "memorial." Hmmmmmmmm.

    Not only are you guys racists, you're idiots as well. But...............you're too stupid to know that you're both. Blacks built this country that everyone wants to come to because of our jazz, our blues, our soul, our ignorant multi-million dollar [but soon broke] sports jocks, and even our cool black Presidents, both Clinton and Obama.

    And, yes, blacks built the White House [which they were sold in front of after building it], the Capital, Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Tidal Basin, America's other Plantations; the George Washington Bridge, etc.
    ad nauseum.

    If you weren't so filled with hate, envy, denial, jealously, prejudice, bias and evil, you would know and recognize these truths to be self evident that all women and men are created equal. And, no amount of ignorance or rabid, vile hatred will change that.

    Take that, stuff it up your pipe and smoke it, at either end you prefer, oafs.

  • ZeeZee

    Ignacio. Are your illegal alien papers paid up?

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