Greater Greater Washington

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Proposal for a huge Capitol security zone gets low marks

Could a bigger security zone around the US Capitol enhance downtown and protect Congress? Most of our commenters say such an idea would instead deaden a large area for little actual security benefit.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The recently-retired head of security for the US Senate thinks there should be a big security zone, closed to motor vehicles, all the way to Union Station and east to 2nd Street. Washington Post columnist Bob McCartney recently wrote about this and said, "I support Gainer's vision, for the sake of both security and expanding green space downtown."

While some might think that an urbanist site would support more green space (and, perhaps, cheer removing space for cars), our community did not agree with McCartney. And we're not anti-car; a grid of streets is a good element of cities.

Thayer-D wrote,

The recommendation to turn the Capitol building into a multi-block secured campus is a horrible idea. Obviously some buffer and enhanced security is necessary, but the threats to all our cities are unbounded. No amount of buffer will truly keep us safe if someone is determined enough to cause havoc. Plus,the security state atmosphere that will result would be a shame.
RDHD added:
When I first read the headline I thought 'Ooh, a car free zone would be really nice.' Then I read the article and got the scary feeling that this guy would turn the city into a police state if he had his druthers. The city could quickly become nearly unlivable given the number of things that could be protected to the degree he thinks they should.
And Birdie pointed out,
The Capitol Police already prohibit large trucks from the streets immediately surrounding the Capitol. They have officers posted at key locations to divert truck traffic, along with signs announcing where trucks have to turn. Is it perfect? No. But I'd much rather put up with that system than further indulge Gainer 's love of security theater and cutting off the Capitol complex from the rest of the city.
McCartney noted that closing Constitution and Independence would be terrible for traffic. Commenter KingmanPark echoed this.
Blocking such a huge section would force crosstown traffic to the North and South, where east-west connections are already congested. Traffic would become a nightmare, and you'd also slow down crosstown buses such as the X2 and eventually the streetcar.
Could there be a silver lining for urbanism?

Others wanted to consider how, if such a proposal were to happen, it could work well, or at least better. AWalkerInTheCity said,

This is a place where we get to think radically about transportation options. Though I am often a moderate [with respect] to auto usage, I too sometimes like to engage in such radical thinking. I know many folks here hate security theater, but I can imagine some HUGE upsides to the proposal. Can we at least think how, if this were adopted for security reasons, it could be connected to bike infra in order to become a regional asset? ...

A no car zone to union station would solve the MBT to the Mall/PA Ave gap in the bike network. It would also absolutely require improved transit access to Union Station. Transit vehicles could be expempt - much as buses are (I think) allowed closer to the Pentagon than private vehicles.

But others disagree that such a change could ever be positive. Neil Flanagan wrote,
You can't turn Gainer's plan into urbanism. It's not just closing streets, it's about eliminating mixed use and enclosing what should be open spaces. There's not much left of urbanism without those.

It violates the fundamental part of walkability and vibrancy: having something to go to. No matter how "green" and carfree a space is, it's dead without a reason to be there.

The mall doesn't need to become an even larger isolated monoculture, no matter how much "park" space that returns.

The outer grounds of the Capitol are a dead zone. When was the last time you went to the Taft Carillon? Or those parks Dan Malouff pointed out?

Would it be like Pennsylvania Avenue?

Some commenters pointed to Pennsylvania Avenue as a fairly successful car-free space, though Kingman Park noted that Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House isn't open to transit vehicles, either. And Falls Church said

It took many years of debate and lobbying for the park service to redesign PA Ave in front of the WH into the nice space it is today. For a decade after PA Ave was closed, it looked like the uninviting, inhospitable areas that are closed around the Capitol. Only because the national spotlight gazes on "1600 Penn Ave" was pressure to make it into a nice space successful. I doubt the proposal for closing down additional areas around the Capitol would result in anything different than the areas that are already closed.

Also, the feds didn't pay for any additional transit that was needed to replace the lost vehicular capacity after PA Ave was shut down. Unlikely they would do it for shutting down more of the area around the Capitol.

Jasper predicted that any such plan woudn't create real pedestrian-oriented zones or green space, but rather just mean more fenced-off parking for people who work at the Capitol (like the White House has done with the E Street area, for example).

He said, "This plan would, of course, immediately start with a massive list of vehicles that would be excepted to the rules. Police vehicles, politicians vehicles, security vehicles, emergency vehicles... You know, pretty much all vehicles Congress would need, except those of 'We the People' that Congress serves."

Alex B. agreed:

The existing track record for security closures becoming good public spaces is very poor. The closed streets around the capitol are hardly car-free, they are just closed to public traffic. They instead get used for staff parking. There is little to no benefit from improved bike access, since the gates are not bike friendly and the police direct bikes onto sidewalks. Transit routes are forced into costly detours around the cordons.
Is this really necessary for security?

Gainer said it's important to act because "Action after something happens is fighting the last war." But commenter Falls Church begs to differ:

Gainer is the one trying to fight the last war. The next attack isn't likely to come from some obvious source like the truck bomb that was used in the 1993 WTC bombing. It will be from some absurdly weak link that no one is thinking about. Probably something having to do with cybersecurity. If the US can control Iran's nuclear centrifuges using an embedded virus, surely a hacker terrorist could control some critical electronic component in or near the Capitol building to wreak havoc.

Gainer reminds me of the French in WWII who heavily fortified their border with Germany. Then Hitler invaded France via Belgium, totally bypassing the fortified Maginot Line.

AWalkerInTheCity wouldn't dismiss the concern so quickly:
Not sure how much Gainer is thinking in a knee jerk way, and how much is serious concern about truck bombs. Truck bombs are quite real, are a problem overseas, and prior to 9/11, they were the instrument IIUC of the biggest terrorist attack on American soil (at Oklahoma City.) Now that aircraft have their cockpits locked, trucks are likely the biggest non-cyber physical terrorist threat. I am not sure I am qualified to dismiss that because TSA makes old ladies take their shoes off or because we have too many ugly bollards.
David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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sorry to disappoint, but I said what I'm going to say, which is that its worth thinking about the possibilities, and not just a gut dismissal. If people are going to get upset with me for not chiming in on "security theater is bad" I am not going to play. Fine, oppose it. It may not have serious support from Congress anyway, I don't know.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 18, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Gainer's idea may be a bad one from an urban planning perspective. It might even be horrible, but that's the nature of these security discussions. For instance, if you shut down the publication of research on virus engineering you may save mankind, in the short-term at least, from an epic disaster. But you might delay a cancer discovery. Is this trade-off sound or worthwhile?

The world looks very different to these security professionals. They see daily threat assessments of plots to do this-and-that. This world is not made public, and the public has little idea how deep, real and any of this might be.

I would not object to Gainer's plan on the basis of its urbanism impact. What I think Gainer is doing in this interview is getting a discussion started. As the latest high-profile retiree in this area, he is probably acting as a proxy for a broader intelligence community concern. It will need careful consideration.

by kob on Jun 18, 2014 1:40 pm • linkreport

If police and elected officials are still allowed to drive, then it's not a car-free zone. Plain and simple. Ask those folks to give up their cars, too, and see what happens.

by Tom Veil on Jun 18, 2014 1:48 pm • linkreport

@Tom Veil--

How would you feel if you're injured and your first responders have to walk? Or maybe they can use bikeshare! LOL

by Randy on Jun 18, 2014 6:02 pm • linkreport

Remember how after the Capitol Visitors Center opened, all of a sudden you could no longer enter the Capitol and just explore it on your own? Remember being able to sit on the West Terrace? Remember being able to attend a symphony concert on the Capitol's west lawn without being screened by the TSA? Remember when you could enter the Supreme Court by the front doors? Remember when you could ride the Capitol subways?

These changes are incremental. And once they're implemented - with or without public debate - they're impossible to roll back.

by M.V. Jantzen on Jun 18, 2014 6:39 pm • linkreport

Randy how about they simply don't implement more security theater.

by asffa on Jun 18, 2014 11:25 pm • linkreport

+1 on this article based on comments.

Also, I think AWITC's counterpoints are what made it an interesting discussion and not just a one-sided debate.

by Falls Church on Jun 18, 2014 11:43 pm • linkreport

Yes, truck bombs are a real threat. Hence my suggestion that we try to find technical solutions for prohibiting large trucks while permitting light vehicles. (Some kind of weight-based mechanical device, perhaps.) Closing the roads entirely and further isolating our government from the people is not the answer. (Neither is the current solution of just saying trucks are banned and waving them away, Birdie--there's no reason that a terrorist with a truck bomb wouldn't just run over a cop.)

by Mike on Jun 19, 2014 9:07 am • linkreport

thanks FC

but I dont know

A. If this is a serious proposal

B. How real the threat is

C. If there would be real discussion with DC this time unlike previous times

D. If Congress would seriously, to compensate DC and the region for massive inconvenience done for Congress' safety, devote funds to transit, esp heavy rail transit, in lieu of displaced surface transit routes.

Too many unknowns to make a serious case that this could be a good thing.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 19, 2014 9:16 am • linkreport

Truck bombs are a real threat, of course, but they're much more of a threat to any number of government buildings than the U.S. Capitol, which is set back from public streets. It would be exceedingly difficult to destroy the structure or even cause major damage to it with a truck bomb due to those existing setbacks, as well as the structure of the building.

On the other hand, you could take a big bite out of the House or Senate office buildings - where Congressionals spend more of their time anyway - much more easily. Not to mention various executive departments, etc. etc.

The question is how much time, expense, and inconvenience do we want to trade off for mitigating those potential vulnerabilities. If this were Baghdad, the answer might be different, but in the US, existing measures have largely held up thus far. To be fair, sometimes we got lucky (the first WTC bombing, which could've gone much worse). And, of course, in OKC our luck ran out.

Still, rearranging a big chunk of our urban fabric solely to further harden the Capitol, when it is already a very hardened target against this vector of attack, strikes me as unwise.

The broader issue of large trucks and their impact/effect in the city also needs to be discussed, but it is an unpleasant conversation that cities and business owners would prefer to avoid.

by Dizzy on Jun 19, 2014 9:25 am • linkreport

AWITC,
I don't think anyone is objecting to your being open minded, but you said...

"were this not being raised for security reasons, and were there not gaps in the bike network, and were we not scrambling for funding for heavy rail projects, I would certainly not suggest it."

I'm guessing you wouldn't have suggested this for the same reason that many here find the idea laughable. It's like saying we should all carry guns becasue the only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Until that good guy becomes a bad guy and you end up with a paranoid hair trigger culture. Maybe that's why you mentioned Jerusalem where it works wonderfully.

"That Gainer is not motivated by urbanism is to me a plus, not a minus. It means a chance to achieve radical change without expending all the limited political capital that urbanists possess."

I agree we need to hear all opinions, not just the pro-urbanist crowd, but what kind of radical change are you looking for, getting better bike infra? If it where all about leveraging and spending "political capital", I don't think you'd be hearing such strong reactions against this.

"It just seems really weird to me that in GGW, the overwhelming reaction is to the security theater aspects and not to the modal aspects."

Considering the blog is about improving Washington DC, not sure how wierd that is. Let's be smart, but let's not suggest that the "HUGE upsides to the proposal" will offset the corrosive effect this idea will have to our civic life.

by Thayer-D on Jun 19, 2014 9:34 am • linkreport

Thayer, and that response is a good example of why I said above that I have said all I need to say.

I don't think this discussion will generate much more light. If anyone else wants to have a go at discussing what quid pro quos are desirable or possible, have at it. I will not.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 19, 2014 9:47 am • linkreport

DA

I know you have asked me to write a post, and at some point I intend to (probably about housing, planning, and transport in NoVa - coverage of NoVa here has improved, but there is still some low hanging fruit I could address, I think) But this seems to me a way to create an AWITC post without AWITC submitting it. That is fine, if this is a topic you want to discuss. But if this becomes a thread not to discuss the substnance of the topic, but the wording of my comments on another thread, which I never expected to become the SUBJECT of a post, I will request that you delete the thread. Of course you are free not to.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 19, 2014 9:51 am • linkreport

AWITC: Let's discuss offline. I'll email you. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Jun 19, 2014 9:54 am • linkreport

First, blocking Pennsylvania isn't a big swath of real estate - as what as he is proposing and that was a big deal to do and implement. That created issues of course but magnify that and then you get the problems.

One some level I can see the Independence, Pennsylvania, Constitution, 2nd street as those get really close to potential targets, but all the way up to Union Station is silly. Much of that land has no buildings on it and is devoted to congressional staffer parking. As it is the old and since 2011 closures, have made certain bus routes complicated and very circuitous.

I just can't see this really working for anyone other than members of Congress and their staff. I understand that it was his job to consider security and not worry about the ramifications to commuters, regular drivers, cabbies, public transportation, and PEOPLE WHO MAKE DC THEIR HOME (especially those that live right near here), but I can't help but feel it is a plan designed to make the jobs of Capitol Police easier and give the appearance of security without actually providing more security. It definitely would basically create a dead zone filled with cars parked at curbs for only those lucky enough to get a parking pass - that would still have to get checked before entering the restricted zone.

by ET on Jun 19, 2014 11:35 am • linkreport

It's my understanding that people were/are more mad about the E street closures anyway.

by drumz on Jun 19, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

Yes, truck bombs are a real threat. Hence my suggestion that we try to find technical solutions for prohibiting large trucks while permitting light vehicles. (Some kind of weight-based mechanical device, perhaps.) Closing the roads entirely and further isolating our government from the people is not the answer. (Neither is the current solution of just saying trucks are banned and waving them away, Birdie--there's no reason that a terrorist with a truck bomb wouldn't just run over a cop.)

That already exists. The police officers aren't just standing there with nothing to work with. There are additional barriers that can be raised in a heartbeat that would basically shut down most of the area this guy wants to harden. If a truck or a bus tries to drive someplace they shouldn't, those go up and block it. The Capitol Police don't just rely on the good faith of the driver. It's not automated, and maybe it could be, but I'd distrust automation here. If those things are raised at the wrong time, they can be quite hazardous. When that women was heading towards the Capitol after ramming the White House gates recently, they raised those barriers, and a Capitol Police car was on one of them at the time. It went flying and was pretty thoroughly destroyed. You don't want that to happen to a guy who has a pickup full of potting soil for his garden and has no idea he's 10 lbs over the weight limit.

by Zeus on Jun 20, 2014 5:29 pm • linkreport

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