The Washington Post

Smith­so­nian master plan draws fire


The Na­tional Cap­i­tal Plan­ning Com­mis­sion voiced se­ri­ous con­cerns Thurs­day about the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s pro­posal to re­make the 17-acre area around its Cas­tle, say­ing that the or­ga­ni­za­tion needed to bet­ter ex­plain why it wanted to ex­ca­vate sev­eral sto­ries be­low the his­toric build­ing and why the plan mostly ig­nores the re­cently re­stored Arts and In­dus­tries Build­ing.

“It’s caus­ing great anx­i­ety,” said Com­mis­sioner Peter May, as­so­ciate re­gional di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice. “If we put this on the anx­i­ety spec­trum, this is at the top.”

The pub­lic also is alarmed. An on­line pe­ti­tion protest­ing the po­ten­tial de­mo­li­tion of the pop­u­lar Enid A. Haupt Gar­den, another as­pect of the Smith­so­nian’s master plan, has gar­nered more than 700 sig­na­tures.

Re­sis­tance to the sweep­ing plan has been grow­ing since it was in­tro­duced in Novem­ber 2014. De­signed by ar­chi­tect Bjarke In­gels, the project in­volves five build­ings — in­clud­ing two na­tional his­toric land­marks — along the south­ern edge of the Mall from Sev­enth to 12th streets SW. It is pro­jected to take 20 to 30 years to com­plete at a cost of about $2 bil­lion. The first stage of the mas­sive plan, the ren­o­va­tion of the Cas­tle, is ex­pected to be­gin in 2021.

Smith­so­nian of­fi­cials say the changes would im­prove con­nec­tions be­tween above- and be­low­ground spa­ces and pro­vide bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity and ac­cess to the mu­se­ums from the Mall. The

plan also would add such vis­i­tor ameni­ties as restau­rants and bath­rooms, help pro­tect the Cas­tle from earth­quakes and cre­ate shared me­chan­i­cal sys­tems and load­ing docks.

The Smith­so­nian’s up­date to the plan­ning com­mis­sion, one of two agen­cies that must ap­prove the project, did not in­clude the In­gels ren­der­ing of a fu­tur­is­tic plaza that would re­place the Enid A. Haupt Gar­den be­hind the Cas­tle. Also no­tice­ably ab­sent was any men­tion of a con­tro­ver­sial seis­mic strat­egy, known as base iso­la­tion, that would re­quire ma­jor ex­ca­va­tion around and be­low the Cas­tle. Both of those pro­pos­als were crit­i­cized by the pub­lic when the plan was in­tro­duced.

Ann Trow­bridge, the Smith­so­nian’s as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of plan­ning, brought up the ren­der­ings right off the bat, say­ing they were help­ful to ex­plore the plan but “don’t rep­re­sent com­pleted de­signs.”

Com­mis­sion Chair­man L. Pre­ston Bryant asked whether the Smith­so­nian had changed course on its seis­mic strat­egy, ap­par­ently be­cause the of­fi­cials had not men­tioned base iso­la­tion, tech­nol­ogy that is used on the West Coast but is rare in this part of the coun­try. Trow­bridge said that the more tra­di­tional ap­proach also was be­ing con­sid­ered but that a de­ci­sion may not be made be­fore the fi­nal ver­sion of the master plan is sub­mit­ted.

“I don’t think most master plans in­clude seis­mic so­lu­tions,” she said.

That did not sat­isfy Com­mis­sioner Mina Wright.

“As long as it has been in­tro­duced, it needs to be more fully ex­plored,” said Wright, who added that she is not against the strat­egy but is frus­trated by the Smith­so­nian’s fail­ure to ex­plain why it is be­ing con­sid­ered. “I don’t think the case has yet been made. It feels like [us­ing] an Uzi to kill a field mouse.”

Wright ex­pressed sim­i­lar frus­tra­tion with the lack of in­for­ma­tion about the Arts and In­dus­tries Build­ing, which has been closed since 2004. The Smith­so­nian spent $55 mil­lion to re­store the na­tional his­toric land­mark, but the master plan does not dis­cuss its use. Smith­so­nian of­fi­cials have said they can’t in­clude the build­ing in the plan be­cause Congress is con­sid­er­ing it for the site of a Latino mu­seum.

Again, Wright was not sat­is­fied.

“Use this master plan to get a de­ci­sion about [it],” she said. “You’re go­ing to spend a bucket of money, and it feels vaguely neg­li­gent to let it sit there. It com­prises such a big piece of the puz­zle.”

The Na­tional Cap­i­tal Plan­ning Com­mis­sion’s con­cerns echo the frus­tra­tion of preser­va­tion­ists and oth­ers who have been work­ing with the Smith­so­nian for 15 months to de­ter­mine how the project might ad­versely af­fect the his­toric prop­er­ties. Wright and May are part of that group. ( Their next meet­ing is Wed­nes­day at 5 p.m. at the Cas­tle and is open to the pub­lic.)

While of­fi­cials Thurs­day fo­cused on seis­mic tech­nol­ogy and me­chan­i­cal sys­tems, area res­i­dents are mostly con­cerned about pos­si­bly los­ing the gar­den. Sylvia Cabus of Wash­ing­ton started an on­line pe­ti­tion this week to “Save the Enid A. Haupt Gar­den.”

“We go there reg­u­larly, and it is a won­der­ful des­ti­na­tion for my fam­ily,” Cabus said. “It is a happy sur­prise when you en­ter from the Mall side. It re­ally is a jewel.”

Smith­so­nian of­fi­cials main­tain that they are plan­ning to ex­pand the gar­dens be­hind the Cas­tle and that they will con­sider many op­tions at a later date, a po­si­tion that Un­dersec­re­tary Al­bert Hor­vath re­peated Thurs­day.

Cabus and oth­ers re­main skep­ti­cal.

“The Smith­so­nian is try­ing to man­age this in a PR way,” she said.

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