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Kennedy Center Opts Against Floating Pavilion

By Elizabeth WienerCurrent Staff Writer

The expanded Kennedy Center will still boast a “river pavilion.” But the controversial structure will now be on land, according to a revised design presented to the National Capital Planning Commission last week.

Plans now show the “river pavilion” planted firmly across Rock Creek Parkway from the water, with its upper floor high enough to enjoy views of the Potomac. There will also be a redesigned pedestrian bridge over the parkway to the river, allowing hikers and bikers to access the entire complex from the riverfront, with a “gentle ramp” eliminating the need for an elevator, architect Chris McVoy told the panel.

The new plan is “even more exciting,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “Although land-based, the re-envisioned river pavilion … will have a vista of the river and magnificent pedestrian bridge over the parkway.”

Commissioners expressed support for the creative solution. “It takes advantage of the river, but protects the resource,” said commissioner Beth White.

The changes also represent a win for Georgetown waterfront activists, rowers, kayakers and other boaters who ply that section of the river, and who all opposed placing a permanent structure in the river itself.

“Mrs. Rutter really did turn that battleship around,” said Ann Satterthaite, chair of Friends of the Georgetown Waterfront Park. “With all the interest to protect rivers from unnecessary development, this building did not require a river site.”

The original scheme, which also included two other pavilions on land south of the center, met unexpected but daunting opposition in December.

Boaters said that section of the river is too narrow to accommodate the pavilion and still leave safe space for the crew shells that race there, as well as the canoeists and other river users. The Friends of the Georgetown Waterfront Park group was concerned about the aesthetics and also the environmental impact of new construction in the river.

The planning commission, which must approve such federally related projects, refused to endorse the river pavilion in previous sessions, citing tightened federal regulations that bar most construction in flood plains. And review by the Army Corps of Engineers, which guards “navigable waters” of the United States, was “looming,” as Satterthwaite noted.

Initially, Rutter said the river pavilion was vital to the plan to provide needed rehearsal space and more intimate performance venues, and to better connect the Kennedy Center to Georgetown, the National Mall and the Roosevelt Bridge. She had argued that the “river experience” would be especially enticing, and serve as “a new way to memorialize John F. Kennedy and his affinity for the water.”

But as prospects faded, Rutter said, she asked McVoy and others at Steven Holl Architects to “revisit” the plan. “We understand the situation here,” Rutter said.

Specifically, the “re-envisioned” river pavilion will be a trapezoidal two-story building offering performance and workshop space as well as a cafe, in what the center calls a “highly convertible, intimate venue.” With a movable wall facing east, the upper floor can be adapted for indoor-outdoor use and formal or informal seating. Its new location allows a landscaped green space and reflecting pool facing the “glissando pavilion,” which remains essentially unchanged (as does a planned “entry pavilion”).

With the river pavilion on land, the lower level will connect to a garage and house a loading dock to bring in instruments and food, making the building much easier to service, McVoy said. “You will still see the river pavilion from the Georgetown waterfront, see how nice it is to walk down and have lunch there,” he added.

It’s not yet clear exactly how much the revisions will impact the earlier projected $100 million cost of the entire expansion project. The originally expected May 2017 opening date has been pushed back to September 2018.

Planning commissioners were pleased with the new tack.

“The relation to the river is different, but in a way works better,” said Peter May, a National Park Service official.

“The design really meets all their needs, incorporates the bike path into the design and leaves the river intact for the river users,” said Pamela Roberts of the Potomac Boat Club, which had lobbied strongly against the original plan.

Rutter said she hopes to bring the revised plan back soon for a vote.

This article appears in the May 13 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.