$300 million White House renovation proposed Expanded visitors center, parking garages planned; Congress' OK required


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration unveiled yesterday a $300 million proposal for renovating the White House and its grounds, including an expanded visitors center, a mammoth underground parking garage and private recreation space for presidents and their families.

The plan, which would take 20 years to complete, was described by National Park Service officials as a much-needed improvement for an architectural treasure that has been badly neglected.

It would be the first comprehensive renovation of the site since George Washington chose the spot for the presidential residence in 1791.

The project might never get beyond the blueprint stage because it must win approval from Congress. The administration proposed that most, if not all, of the money for the renovation come from taxpayers.

"This is a carefully crafted vision," Robert G. Stanton, the park service director, said at a ceremony yesterday morning. The White House, he said, "is a physical link and an emotional link between George Washington's nation and that of the new century, new time and new era. Truly, we shall honor the past and imagine the future."

As the 408-page "Comprehensive Design Plan for the White House and President's Park" landed in Congress yesterday, there was skepticism about the $300 million price tag.

"That's quite a lot of money," said Steve Petersen, an aide to Rep. James V. Hansen, a Utah Republican who is a member of the subcommittee that oversees the park service. "We want to protect facilities and make changes that are necessary, but it ain't going to be the Taj Mahal."

The park service and 10 other agencies, including the District of Columbia, the Executive Office of the President and the Secret Service, began crafting the proposal six years ago.

A centerpiece of the project would be a new visitors center in the Commerce Building, now the site of a small one. Nearly 1.2 million tourists come to the White House each year, as many as 5,000 passing through during each two-hour tour period. Visitors wait for hours in a line that often stretches around the southern end of the White House grounds.

"People get wet, cold, yet they come in any kind of weather," said Ann Smith, a park service official who described the proposal. "The visit is that important to them."

People would be able to wait for tours at the expanded visitors center, which would cost more than $57 million and would include an enlarged museum, four video theaters and interactive exhibits on the history of the presidency. It would be linked to the White House by an underground moving sidewalk.

The plan also calls for two underground garages, one for 290 cars under Pennsylvania Avenue and another for 850 cars beneath the Ellipse, to relieve traffic congestion in President's Park -- the grounds surrounding the White House -- and to offer staff members places to park. Delivery trucks, which often clog the front entrances of the White House, would make their deliveries underground.

The president and his family would get a recreational facility that could include a weight room, a basketball court and a whirlpool. Planners said there has been a lack of private space to unwind or exercise. Expanded space for the news media would also be constructed.

The proposal sidestepped the question of whether to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic. The Secret Service closed the street in front of the White House in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing.

The park service has proposed that Pennsylvania Avenue be formally converted into a pedestrian mall, but several members of Congress blocked funds for that plan last year, saying the famous street must be reopened to traffic if it is to be considered the nation's "Main Street."

The project would mark the first time the White House and its surroundings have been altered as part of a single effort. The building last underwent major renovations under President Harry S. Truman, and the landscaping was last changed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Some of the planners involved in the renovation effort said it will be a tough sell on Capitol Hill. David Colby, an official in the District of Columbia Office of Planning who represented the city on the project's executive committee, said any part of the plan approved by Congress will have to be popular to get the lawmakers to continue providing money for the later phases.

"At some point, a plan can go on the shelf and isn't very effective," he said. "It loses its punch."

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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