In a tent on the south side of the Kennedy Center yesterday morning, all manner of important people gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of the performing arts center’s first expansion since opening in 1971. Children from Capitol Hill’s Watkins Elementary School sang “America the Beautiful”; new Board of Trustees member Rose Kennedy Schlossberg (daughter of Caroline, granddaughter of JFK, doppelganger of Jackie) spoke; and Vice President Joe Biden, though tardy, rushed in to comment on just how great this living memorial to the 35th president is. Following the remarks, Schlossberg and Biden joined Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter, Board of Trustees president and Kennedy Center mega-donor David Rubenstein, and architect Steven Holl to stick the ceremonial shovel, which also broke ground for the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, as well as the Kennedy Center, in the earth. 

But hours later, the plans for expansion were put in limbo by the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees and approves all projects that impact the D.C. metro area. The main issue? A floating pavilion in the Potomac River that connects to the Kennedy Center by a pedestrian bridge and, according to the community members who testified before the commission yesterday afternoon, severely impact rowers, recreational boaters, and high school and college athletes who regularly use the river. While most of those testifying politely encouraged the commission to consider an alternative design which would place the pavilion on land, Ann Satterthwaite of Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park went a bit farther, calling the River Pavilion a work of “architectural hubris.” Commission chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr. later echoed this sentiment, saying that he believed placing the pavilion on the river was an act of “architectural novelty and wow factor” and served no real purpose.

Per the NCPC Executive Director’s Recommendation, the commission is encouraged to approve the preliminary plans for this expansion provided the Kennedy Center analyzes the impact of the River Pavilion would have on boat traffic and submits the results before the next review stage. Following community testimony, however, the commissioners were far from sold. Acting on behalf of the General Services Administration, Mina Wright questioned the design and cost ($100 million, all privately sourced) of the expansion, which she said wasn’t justified given that the expansion only provides 60,000 more square feet of rehearsal, event, classroom, and office space. Acting head of the D.C. Office of Planning, Ellen McCarthy, expressed concern that the expansion toward the river further isolates the center from the business and economic hub of downtown D.C. Outgoing D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells called the River Pavilion problematic, despite it being designed to support FEMA’s 500-year flood elevation projection, and sided with the concerned paddlers.

Speaking on behalf of the Department of the Interior, National Park Service associate regional director Peter May said his group would support the EDR as it was currently written. McCarthy and commissioner Robert Miller amended the EDR to exclude the river pavilion from consideration until the Potomac River impact report was concluded and to refine pedestrian connections between the Kennedy Center’s current building, the three expansion buildings, and the surrounding city. The amended EDR was approved by the commission, with May and Wright voting against it.

Despite these setbacks, the Kennedy Center continues to move forward with the expansion and already has an opening date in mind. Rubenstein announced yesterday that the expansion will open on May 29, 2017, the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth.

Rendering courtesy Steven Holl Architects

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