Housing Complex

Insecurity Blanket

Osama bin Laden Killed: Will D.C. Relax Security Downtown?

The Executive Office Building, still behind jersey barriers.

It might seem reasonable that the death of America’s most wanted international terrorist would lead to a relaxation in the high security level that’s reigned since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which happened 10 years ago this fall.

But as anyone who’s lived in the District for much of the last decade knows, security responses aren’t always reasonable. All the city’s systems went on heightened alert for fear of reprisal attacks after Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this month, and Mayor Vince Gray warned District residents to “remain vigilant at all times.”

It was just one more twist of the one-way ratchet: Anyone can increase security, but nobody wants to be the schlump who let standards lapse during peaceful times if something bad happens down the road. And physical security measures are self-propagating, because if some agencies deserve protections, shouldn’t the rest of them as well?

In D.C., that steady progression has seen ever more buildings ringed with bollards and outfitted with metal detectors, sealed entrances, and cordoned-off steps—all to keep their occupants safe from an explosive-laden truck driven by one of bin Laden’s acolytes (or by somebody home-grown, like Timothy McVeigh, whose attack on Oklahoma City prompted the Secret Service to close Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in 1995).

Fortunately, the security response is evolving. In the terrified weeks and months after Sept. 11, officials threw anything big and heavy enough to stop a vehicle onto the sidewalk. After the initial panic subsided, such makeshift indignities gave way to a flurry of master plans, task forces, and protocols for slightly subtler security measures.

So, nearly 10 years later, how are we doing?

The bad news: A lot of the slapdash street detritus protecting federal buildings—like the hefty planters that plague Pennsylvania Avenue, line sidewalks around the Environmental Protection Agency, and cluster around long-shut doorways at the Department of Justice—are here to stay.

“The federal office buildings that line most of Pennsylvania Avenue have asked for and want the planters for what most would consider obvious reasons,” writes Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, which controls the sidewalk. “I would add that recent world events, especially within the past two weeks in Pakistan, underscore the need.” Officials at Federal Protective Services, the agency in charge of keeping U.S. government buildings safe, say they have no plans to replace “temporary” sidewalk obstacles for which they’re responsible.

There’s also some very good news: As security requirements got baked into new projects, we’ve actually scored some improved public spaces. The car-free section of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets NW, redesigned soon after the attacks, has become a staging ground for both protest and contemplation. The new terraces of the Washington Monument grounds serve as places to sit, even as they protect the obelisk and its visitors from careening vehicles. President’s Park South, still a maze of Jersey barriers and temporary-looking fences, is finally slated for a makeover by the winner of a design competition that has drawn the best landscape architects in the country.

But even the most well thought-out permanent security plans have the disadvantage of being pretty much irreversible—and, from a pure public space perspective, inferior to less cluttered landscapes. Which is why the best news is what hasn’t happened. For places where funds for bollardization haven’t been found yet, the feds are re-thinking whether bomb-proofness is actually necessary for every piddling little agency.

“Can we protect everything everywhere all the time? The answer is probably no,” says Bill Dowd, director of physical planning for the National Capital Planning Commission, which reviews projects that have an impact on the “federal interest.” As an example, he cites the planned remodeling of the General Services Administration complex, which will have ground-floor retail and no sidewalk-obstructing solid objects.

“Somebody’s not going to come attack us because they’re not happy with their lease arrangements,” Dowd quips. “At the end of the day, there’s always a level of risk that that agency can choose to accept.”

Osama bin Laden Killed: Will D.C. Relax Security Downtown?

The securitization of Washington sprang into action after the Oklahoma City attack, but went on hyperdrive in 2002, when an interagency task force released a comprehensive plan for replacing Jersey barriers and giant planters with “hardened” street furnishings and specially-designed bollards that have something to do with the buildings they’re protecting—large boulders at the National Museum of the American Indian, for example, and stainless-steel educational “sculptures” at the National Air and Space Museum. (Much of the plan still hasn’t been implemented: The Hirshhorn Museum will finally have its planters replaced this coming year, for example, but the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer Gallery of Art, and Smithsonian Castle have no funding on the horizon to do so.)

This was the decade in which landscape architects became experts in blast radii and explosive impact, even as they sought to improve the public realm, not destroy it.

“These things are part of the urban vocabulary,” says David Rubin of the OLIN Studio, which specializes in security landscaping and designed the current Washington Monument grounds. “They’re not just about preventing trucks, but they’re also about signaling to people that they’re going from a more pedestrian-friendly realm into a vehicle-friendly realm.”

From the District’s perspective, though, the fortification of government buildings was a constant threat to the openness of the city for the people who live here—and it didn’t always seem entirely necessary.

“I think we were always wary of the federal concerns about security and how they translated into potentially killing street vitality,” says Ellen McCarthy, who headed D.C.’s Office of Planning from 2004 to 2006. “Such a huge amount of it is bureaucratic butt-covering. No one wants to have their name on the memo that says additional security isn’t necessary, no matter how remote the risk.”

Case in point: The U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters on M Street SE, which was finished in 2007. Over the District’s protests, the agency wanted no ground-floor retail, finally agreeing to a Starbucks only when it could be built outside the main “skin” of the building. A huge required setback had to be disguised as a “linear park,” with bollards peeking out of a vegetated strip. Officials even insisted on closing 3rd Street, saying two large federal buildings on both sides of a comparatively narrow through-way would prove irresistible to terrorists.

“Are you going to tell us that every place in the city where you have one federal agency across from another agency, you’re going to have to close the street?” McCarthy says, remembering her office’s incredulity. “That’s just ridiculous.”

Once built, it’s hard to get rid of overly protected buildings that create black holes in the neighborhoods that surround them. Just look at the Brutalist ’70s-era FBI headquarters downtown. Sadly, they’re still going up. The Marine Corps, fearful that their bachelor enlisted quarters off Barracks Row are somehow threatened by the freeway behind them, are searching for 150,000 square feet of new space with 82-foot setbacks from the street on now-crowded Capitol Hill. And even though it’s moving most of its high-level personnel to the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8, the Department of Homeland Security is still maintaining its Nebraska Avenue complex at the highest possible level of security (levels that, in large part, are determined simply by the number of employees that work there).

“Level 5 facilities have to go somewhere,” says Mina Wright, of the General Services Administration, brushing off NCPC’s suggestion at a recent meeting that the facility need not be so fortified. “I guess we could look at it, but I don’t know why we would, really.”

But in the downtown core, federal planners may be gaining back some level of sanity. It’s just harder to get a truck full of explosives these days, and intelligence has gotten more sophisticated.

All of that adds up to a question: Even if perimeter security called for in the 2002 plan is well-designed, do we still need it?

“I like to think that that plan was of its time,” says Dowd, of the NCPC. “What I think has happened is we tried some of those projects, and they don’t look as good as they do in the drawings.” He names the fortress-like World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings as examples of places that perhaps look a little more threatening than necessary. “People didn’t have the money to make the temporary permanent eight years ago,” Dowd says. “And now we can do it a little better and a little smarter.”

Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

  • Ben

    Excellent analysis, Lydia. (Those rust-streaked fences surrounding the White House have always particularly appalled me--they're a perfect visualization of the securitized clutter around the city.)

    I'd add one more tremendous loss as a result of the securitocracy: the loss of access to the west steps of the Capitol. It used to offer the best panoramic vistas of the Mall; now, there are haplessly strewn metal barricades and armed secret service officers glaring down at you.

    It's a good thing that planners are seemingly finally coming to the realization that these ugly, obtrusive temporary security measures should be replaced with something more aesthetically interesting and unobtrusive (as with the case of the Washington memorial and the ucoming redesign of South President's park). But the very fact that every government agency views itself as equally susceptible to a terrorist attack--really, do terrorists even know that we *have* a Department of Transportation?--means continued placement of jersey barriers, bollards and fences, and the continued cluttering of the city, all to no particular purpose.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/ Michael

    Lydia, as always, you are one of the best writers in this town. Thanks for your continued coverage.

  • David

    A very well written piece. Lydia shows a great insight into DC issues.

  • Matt

    Lafayette Park and Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House are now a tangled mess of ugly black temporary barriers. What's the point?

  • Mitch

    Is there ever going to be a day when we can walk and sit on the west side of the Capitol again. As far as I'm concerned, Washington won't be normal until we can. It's a tragedy that it is still closed.

  • Erik Bootsma

    Mitch, how about going in the front door of our public buildings as well? Hall of the Sheeple is what the Dome is now.

  • Mario

    A very good article. You captured the intersection of design, urban planning, national and local politics.

...