Security upgrades at Hoover Building may liven up dull block

The General Services Administration is eyeing a long, drab but well traveled D.C. block for a series of pedestrian-friendly upgrades.

The massive Herbert C. Hoover Building, home to the Commerce Department, is a foreboding structure running the length of 14th and 15th streets NW between Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues. The building is undergoing a phased overhaul, which is expected to continue through 2020 and cost upward of $600 million.

The GSA’s latest proposal, on the National Capital Planning Commission’s Thursday docket, is for perimeter security. While the GSA’s overarching goal is to protect the historic building and the 3,000 employees who work inside with fences and bollards, the end result may be a more welcoming block.

The NCPC will consider a concept site design plan for a secure boundary around the Hoover Building (not that Hoover Building) to include a cable-rail system concealed by stone-clad walls and piers, collapsible sidewalks, two reflecting pools on 14th Street, seating areas with benches and two Capital Bikeshare stations — one at 15th and Pennsylvania.

The GSA describes that block as a “long and monotonous stretch of sidewalk,” despite its close proximity to the White House, the National Mall, Pershing Park, Freedom Plaza and the Ronald Reagan Building. The Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenue sides of the building are 415 feet, the length of a normal city block. But the 14th and 15th Street sides are 1,169 feet long.

The NCPC approved the first phase of the Hoover building modernization in 2007, and the concept design for a new Constitution Avenue entrance to the National Aquarium in 2010.

The issue for the congressionally-chartered planning panel has always been perimeter security, specifically the NCPC’s distaste for security elements that breach the public space. The GSA, based on its most recent submission, continues to argue that security elements will have to be located in the “public realm,” but in a way that “complements the style and scale of the building and site.”

The NCPC staff reports suggests that “unique site conditions,” specifically the opening of major tourist attractions nearby (the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for one) may justify an exception to the public space policy in this case. But the GSA will have to demonstrate in future submissions that security barriers cannot be avoided and will be integrated into the urban landscape.

The rectangular, 1.8 million-square-foot, seven-story Herbert C. Hoover Building features six interior courtyards and more than 3,300 rooms joined by 1,000-foot-long unbroken corridors. When it was constructed more than 70 years ago, it was the largest office building in the world.

In 2009, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., submitted a budget amendment to reduce funding for the Hoover building project, arguing that while some renovations may be necessary, “it is questionable that ‘historic restoration’ and ‘new bicycle racks’ should be prioritized at this point in time given the tough economic circumstances Americans find themselves in.”

His amendment was ruled out of order.

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