WASHINGTON (AP) - The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is highly visible to anyone coming in and out of Washington by car. But standing apart from other national memorials, it’s more easily seen than experienced.
For the many people who tour Washington by foot, it’s off the beaten path and difficult to reach— situated beside the Potomac River a half mile from the Lincoln Memorial, which sits at the eastern end of the National Mall.
"I looked at the building from across the way and wondered how I’m going to get in it," tourist Patricia Harvey of Canberra, Australia, said during a recent visit to the Kennedy Center.
To make it easier for the millions of visitors who visit each year, the Kennedy Center is embarking on the largest performing arts construction project in the country — estimated at $650 million —to connect the center to the Mall. Most of the money was approved by Congress and the bill was signed by President Bush
Approval of the plaza project at a time when there are other pressing matters being dealt with by Congress and the president shows that both consider the arts to play an important role in the country, said Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president.
In its 31st season, the Kennedy Center produces and presents a variety of theater and musicals, dance and ballet, orchestral, chamber, jazz, popular and folk music, and multimedia performances.
Located on 17 acres overlooking the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center is the nation’s busiest arts facility, presenting more than 3,300 performances each year for audiences numbering more than two million. More than three million people tour the center each year, and an additional 20 million annually attend touring Kennedy Center productions or tune in to television, radio and Internet broadcasts.
It also houses some treasures — gifts that include chandeliers, tapestries and curtains from countries around the globe.
Last month, the president approved legislation authorizing the construction of a plaza that will flow from the Kennedy Center to the National Mall.
"Nobody gets there by accident," said Shelley Brown, who planned festivals at the Kennedy Center for 10 years. "It has to be a very concerted effort to visit it, unlike for someone on the National Mall who might stumble on the Korean Memorial. Once it’s connected it will be part of the Washington experience."
The $400 million contained in the Performing Arts Plaza Authorization Act gives the Transportation Department approval to build the pedestrian plaza and make better sense of a web of roads surrounding the center.
To date, it’s the largest authorization from Congress for a performing arts project, Kaiser said.
It also allows the center to construct two buildings on the plaza that include an arts education center and rehearsal space and offices for the Washington Opera, which is housed at the center. Kennedy Center officials are developing a plan to raise $250 million in private donations needed for the new buildings.
The project goals are outlined in the "Kennedy Center Access Study," which was put together by the center, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Park Service and the District of Columbia Department of Public Works.
The study details a deck over the Potomac Freeway on which a plaza and the two buildings could stand, a stairway to a riverfront promenade and a rebuilt E Street that would link the Kennedy Center to the core of the city. Groundbreaking for the plaza is expected in about two years, Kaiser said.
An architectural election process will be completed by the end of the year for the two buildings.
Groundbreaking for the buildings is targeted in the next three or four years.