Dig, Dig, Glub, Glub--DC's Underground Follies
It's all the rage in this height-restricted, land-scarce city: If you can't find open territory for your museum, school or government building, go down--dig deep into the ground and create new space for yourself. It's wildly expensive, but it gets around the problem of having nowhere else to build.
The mother of all such projects, as the Post's Mike Ruane and Joe Stephens report today, is the Capitol Visitors Center, the megamillions boondoggle which is years behind schedule and obscenely over budget. But everywhere you look, you see builders deciding to dig despite the inevitable risk of flooding. Now, a federal study finds that large portions of the Mall--including the site of the underground visitors center for the Vietnam Wall--are in a flood plain that is more dangerous and more liable to flood disastrously than ever imagined.
Much of the Mall and the monumental core of the city was originally underwater and was created by dumping fill into the old Tiber Creek, a river that was once 700 feet wide at what is now the White House lawn. Last year's big flood in the basements of the Commerce, IRS, Justice and National Archives buildings were just a taste of what's yet to come, as the Chesapeake Bay is expected to rise by a foot over the next century. The report for the National Capital Planning Commission says that "a rise in the Potomac River of one foot, combined with a major storm surge, would make the Jefferson Memorial an island and flood the National Mall up to the Reflecting Pool."
Pretty dramatic, no?
What to do? An Army Corps of Engineers levee was built from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument in 1940 to forestall the big flood, but as these things go, the levee needs work, and the feds are now proposing to bolster the levee, which could mean closing some of the streets that cross the Mall (specifically 23rd Street NW)--and that would create a traffic nightmare.
The NCPC study says that neither the feds nor D.C.'s Water and Sewer Authority could figure out exactly why last year's flood was so bad:
The capacity of the D.C. sewer system in the Federal Triangle area is unknown, as it was constructed before such standards were typically adopted. As a result, it would be easy to conclude that the storm exceeded the capacity of the sewer. However, the consultant noted that flooding started before the rainfall should have exceeded the sewer's capacity. In addition, when the flooding dissipated, it also did so at a speed greater than what would be expected.
Another fix would be to finally address the city's pathetic combined sewer overflow system, the archaic construction that sends raw sewage into the Potomac and the Chesapeake whenever a big rain overstresses the District's ancient sewer pipes. Cost: $1.9 billion. But even that long-needed project would not come close to providing watertight protection.
The levee improvements would cost but $7 million, yet federal officials say they have been unable to get the funding for the project.
The draft report concludes that "Flooding is a risk to the national cultural and historic resources in the area, a financial risk for the property damage, and a security risk given the concentration of key federal functions."
Yet we continue to dig. The Northwest Current's Elizabeth Wiener reported last week that the controversial underground visitors center that Congress has mandated for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial sits smack in the middle of a low-lying spot that's especially prone to flooding.
Wiener witnessed this scene at a planning commission meeting: Commission member Herbert Ames pointed to a map showing a flood plain near the site of the Vietnam Wall visitors center.
"How close is that to the visitors center?" Ames asked.
"It's on top of it," replied commission planner Michelle Desiderio.
Yet "we have close to a congressional mandate to build there," Ames sputtered. "In private business, it would be absolutely crazy to build an underground center in a flood plain."
By Marc Fisher |
March 9, 2007; 7:02 AM ET
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