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After September 11, lots of things changed in D.C.’s public space: Bollards went up, streets closed, and federal buildings in general became more difficult to get around. They often became downright ugly, too, with chain link fences and concrete hulks channeling people out of newly secure areas.

Such was the case with the area just south of the White House, including the Ellipse as well as E Street between 15th and 17th Streets, which has been “temporarily” closed to unauthorized vehicles for the last several years using jury-rigged security measures like jersey barriers and provisional guard booths. Now, the National Park Service and the Secret Service are kicking off a process to decide on landscaping and infrastructure changes that will keep the park accessible for visitors while adequately protecting one of the most highly guarded sites in the entire world.

“I believe there is consensus from all agencies that what is out there is not acceptable and needs to be improved,” says Blll Dowd, the National Capital Planning Commission’s director of physical planning. “If security is going to continue to be out there, it needs to be in a more comprehensively designed way, and more respectful of the public space.”

Of course, the new process suggests that security will continue to be “out there,” in a way that’s much less easy to remove—Dowd suggested that the authorities will likely choose to formally close that section of E Street to traffic for good. Just one more indication that space-confining security measures are a one-way ratchet.

The good part? There’s a design competition. As with the area on Pennsylvania Avenue just north of the White House—which was closed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings—NCPC will soon issue a request for qualifications, and then ask four respondents to submit proposals, on which the public will have an opportunity to comment. The designers will receive an honorarium for their submissions, but there’s no grand prize, and they might not even be hired on as the project architect if their design wins out—though perhaps being able to say that you designed the President’s backyard is reward enough in itself.

If you want to know more and ask questions, there’s a public scoping session on March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the White House Visitors Center, 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

What things look like at the moment.