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Proposed stairs would mar Kennedy Center, critics say

Local residents and one of Washington's best-known architects are sounding the alarm on a just-announced, fast-moving plan by federal authorities to add new stairways to the Kennedy Center that critics say would deface the iconic memorial to President John F. Kennedy.

The stairways, proposed by the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration, would connect the Kennedy Center to the river. While residents strongly support such a concept, they say the current proposal would amount to a disappointing retrofit that would "mar" the memorial in terms of scale and appropriateness.

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NPS/FHWA
NPS/FHWA

"These stairs will forever look like superficial little add-­ons, wholly out of character with the scale" of the Kennedy Center, said Arthur Cotton Moore, whose 1987 design for a broader, single staircase plaza was endorsed by the National Capital Planning Commission and included in its Legacy Plan for Washington.

"This haphazard design might as well be two rope ladders," said Frederic Schwartz, an attorney and Watergate resident. Some compared the design to "fire escapes."

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The Georgetown Dish
The Georgetown Dish

Besides disappointment with the scale and inappropriateness of the proposed stairs, residents say they would not adequately enhance the connection between the Kennedy Center plaza and the Potomac River -- a primary goal of the project. "It would be another attraction to the area if they would design the stairs properly," said Maria Vintro, a resident. But she worried that the narrow chutes currently "preferred" by NCPC would discourage pedestrian use.

"By turning away from the river, these narrow little stairs do not provide places to sit and enjoy the view, see the sunset, or watch the river's boat traffic, and its many regattas," Moore wrote. By contrast, he said, the 1987 plan envisioned a broad staircase that would "be used as a grandstand for people who want to enjoy the increasing number of activities that are taking place on the river, plus a floating dock for water taxis and ferry boats bringing people to the Center," said Moore, a lifetime member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning advocacy group.

Councilmember Jack Evans said he endorses the broad stair plaza designed by Moore and favored by the residents. "That's the design everyone supports," said Evans. "I don't understand why the Park Service would be proposing something totally different after all the community input we've had."

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NPS/FHWA
NPS/FHWA

"We've all been working on the Georgetown waterfront since 1987, and here we are about to see the Waterfront Park completed. We want to make sure the that this addition both serves the purpose of inviting the public in and also respects the grandeur of the memorial to John F. Kennedy," said Watergate resident Jonda McFarlane. MacFarlane said the just-announced NCPC comment period ending March 14 could prevent proper public vetting of the Park Service/Federal Highway Administration proposal.

NPS and the FHWA, in conjunction with DDOT and the Kennedy Center, say they have initiated work on an Environmental Assessment (EA) to evaluate the proposed staircases.

The Kennedy Center was conceived by architect Edward Durrell Stone as a dignified symmetrical temple-­like structure, later dedicated as a memorial to President Kennedy. Moore said his design for the broad stairs echos the grand stairs seen at other presidential memorials including the Jefferson and Lincoln. The proposed "fire-escape" style design "fails to respond to that tradition," Moore wrote to the NCPC.

To comment, visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov/NAMA.