Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Mr. Harry Robinson, III

Board of Directors, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund

Today, you are considering S. 2419, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center Deadline Enforcement Act, which was introduced by Senators Stevens, Kerry and Hagel on March 15. A similar bill was passed in the House last month.


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is testifying today to answer some of the questions members of the Senate may have about the necessity of this bill.


The Memorial Fund is the organization that built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Over the years, we have found that “The Wall That Heals” has become “The Wall That Educates.” Many of the 4 million visitors who come to the Wall each year are schoolchildren who were not even alive during the Vietnam War. The Memorial Fund has come to realize that we need to do more to educate the country’s young people about the patriots who sacrificed for their country during that war.


We have sought the advice of experts who have a great deal of knowledge about the National Mall. Our initial site evaluations were conducted by the designers who created Constitution Gardens and the architect of record for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

We have worked in good faith with the commissions responsible for new projects on the Mall, but the delays continue. Congressmen Richard Pombo and Steve Pearce met with the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) on March 2, 2006, and asked him about these delays. They soon thereafter introduced and passed H.R. 4882 to force compliance with the law authorizing the Center.  Senators Ted Stevens, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry agreed that a legislative solution was needed, and they introduced S. 2419, now under consideration by this Subcommittee.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has worked within the established system to get a site approved for the Memorial Center.


This legislation is not an alternative to going through the normal channels. We have, in fact, been working within the system. Two of the three commissions that must approve a site before it is awarded have approved our preferred site, which is the site named in the legislation: “Site A,” the land bordered by Henry Bacon Drive, 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue. (For a timeline of all activity on the Memorial Center, see Exhibit 1.)


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The National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission recommended two sites for the Memorial Center on May 11, 2005: Site A and the Interior South Building on Constitution Avenue, which is not available.


The Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) gave conditional approval to Site A during a Sept. 15, 2005 meeting, approval that was reasonably conditioned on seeing an appropriate design.


The problems have stemmed from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the third group that must give approval to the use of Site A.


The Memorial Fund and the National Park Service have experienced numerous and continuing delays at the hands of the NCPC.


The Memorial Fund and the National Park Service have acted in good faith, trying to work with the NCPC to comply with all of its requests. Here are three examples:


  • During a presentation at the Oct. 6 NCPC meeting, architect James Cummings, AIA, presented traffic data gleaned from existing studies conducted in 1992, 1998 and 2000. The NCPC concluded that this information was not current enough and requested a new traffic study be conducted. It was commissioned by the Memorial Fund immediately, completed and submitted to the NCPC in time for the Dec. 1 meeting.


  • From the beginning of their dealings about the Memorial Center, the NCPC and the Memorial Fund have been using the NCPC’s own Museums and Memorials Master Plan as a guide for how and when information should be submitted in the approval process. This document clearly shows that a preliminary environmental analysis should be completed prior to site approval, and an in-depth environmental assessment should be completed once a site has been named. (Exhibit 2) Yet, the Memorial Center was taken off of the agenda for the Dec. 1, 2005 NCPC meeting because the commission insisted that a detailed environmental assessment needed to be conducted on two sites before approval was given for any site. The Memorial Fund commissioned this assessment. It has taken four months and has cost $80,000—time and money the Memorial Fund was forced to invest in a site that has not even been approved.


  • In June 2005, the Department of the Interior refused to allow its Interior South Building on Constitution Avenue to be considered as a site for the Memorial Center. In spite of this refusal, the NCPC insisted the building, as well as land in front and in back of it, be considered for the Center. At NCPC insistence, the National Park Service went back to the Department of the Interior several times to request that permission to use Interior South be reconsidered. The answer remained “no.” When the National Park Service and Memorial Fund did not

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advance the building as a serious site candidate, the NCPC staff recommendation prior to the Oct. 6, 2005 meeting criticized them for not giving this site more consideration (Exhibit 3).


Why is the NCPC delaying site approval?


The NCPC is on the record opposing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center since the project was first being considered by Congress in 2001. In 2003, as part of her testimony before this subcommittee concerning the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitors Center, NCPC Executive Director Patricia Gallagher said, “Since 1991, the Commission has been consistent in expressing its objection to additions to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.”


In 2003, Congress passed legislation allowing a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center “at or near” the Memorial. President Bush signed that bill into law that same year. Although the will of Congress is clear, NCPC members have felt free to continue debating the question as late as October 2005, when they were supposed to be considering where to put the Center.


  • “I understand that Congress passed and said that the Vietnam Memorial Visitor Center would be exempt from that [the ban on future memorials on the Mall], and that would be the last one. Well, that doesn’t ring a bell with me, because Congress has said that will be the last one on a lot of other things, too, and they didn’t live up to what they said.”—Herbert F. Ames, NCPC Commissioner


  • “This is sort of déjà vu of World War II for me, which I voted against consistently for one reason: I do not believe we should study war on the Mall. I think the Mall is a sacred, hallowed ground, underneath or on top, and I believe that we should not have more and more things that point to war and celebrate it.”—Arrington Dixon, NCPC Commissioner


  • “If you ask the average American person, they would probably say the Mall is finished. Stop doing things to it. Leave it alone. I think that what we are trying to do here in continuing to nibble away at it by special exceptions will never end unless we all cumulatively take a stand on this.”—Jose L. Galvez III, NCPC Commissioner


Documents that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has obtained through the Freedom of Information Act illustrate an institutional bias against the Memorial Center on the part of key members of the NCPC:


  • In an e-mail in February 2005 about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center project, NCPC Historic Preservation Officer Nancy Witherell jokes about a colleague’s comments that, to get to a remote site, “pedestrians can ‘run’ when they get a Walk sign!” (Exhibit 4)

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  • In the same e-mail, Witherell referred to a recently held public meeting about the Memorial Center site as “an NPS dog and pony show.” (Exhibit 4)


  • In another e-mail sent around the same time, Witherell dismisses the importance of the Memorial Center: “I realize Jan Scruggs/Congress is a high-powered applicant, but so was MCI/Mayor Barry/Abe Pollin/Federal City Council.” (Exhibit 5)


Other memorials, including the World War II Memorial and the FDR Memorial, have found the bureaucracy of the NCPC to be inhibiting to forward progress and have also sought legislative remedies to the problem.


This legislation will not enable the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to ignore historic and environmental considerations.


Furthermore, it has never been the intention of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund to bypass environmental concerns or distract from the historic importance of the Mall.


  • The Memorial Fund has demonstrated again and again that it cares about preserving the historic vistas of the National Mall.


    • The year-long study commissioned by the Memorial Fund to evaluate potential sites was conducted by Henry Arnold and George Dicky, who designed Constitution Gardens, and J.C. Cummings, the architect of record for the Memorial.


    • The Memorial Fund conducted a public design competition that took nearly nine months and produced two world-renown firms as winners: Polshek Partnership LLC as the architect and Ralph Appelbaum Associates as the exhibit designer.


    • In his testimony in front of the NCPC in October 2005, architect James Polshek stated his goals for the Memorial Center: “This is a project that [will] not bear, in the end, the signature of an architect, something that you are all too familiar with here in Washington….I talked to my staff and my partners and I said, ‘We are going into this as a facilitator, as a mediator and as a protector that, in the end, our job is to protect the sanctity of the memorial and its site.’”


    • The National Park Service is a partner with the Memorial Fund to make sure the site chosen is best for the Center, the Mall and the country.



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    • A board member of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and a key advisor in this process is Harry Robinson, chairman of the department of architecture at Howard University and a past member and chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts.


  • The enabling legislation passed in 2003 stipulates that the Center will be underground. So, while a representative of the NCPC was quoted by the press not long ago as saying that this legislation would result in “a five-story building on the National Mall,” that is impossible. And it is not the goal of the National Park Service or the Memorial Fund. The Center will be underground. (For the facts about other misconceptions that have aired in the press, see Exhibit 6.)


  • The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the National Park Service must still work with the NCPC and other commissions to get approval on the design aspects of the Memorial Center. Our intention is not to bypass these bodies, but to remove the delays from getting the center under way.


Thank you for your consideration of these points. We urge the members of this subcommittee and the entire Senate to approve S. 2419.