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Union Square Under New Management

AOC Jurisdiction Raises Questions About Access, Beautification

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Days after the fiscal 2012 omnibus spending bill was signed into law late last month, filmmakers had trouble getting permission to shoot from Union Square, an 11-acre swath of the National Mall at the base of the Capitol’s West Front containing the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Reflecting Pool.

Activists looking to get permits to hold demonstrations there were told that they had called the wrong number.

And that’s how people found out that Union Square was no longer under the aegis of the National Park Service. Unbeknownst to the agencies involved, a provision was included in the spending bill that transferred jurisdiction to Congress.

Union Square is a small parcel of land, but the ramifications of its new landlord could be far-reaching, involving questions of security, commerce, maintenance and the First Amendment.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the main liaison between Congress and the District who has since been holding meetings with the stakeholders involved to assess the situation, was surprised by the switch.

“I was completely caught off guard,” she said. “I thought, ‘My goodness, if there’s any reason for suspicion, it’s legislation on an appropriations bill.’”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer told Roll Call that the reason for the land transfer is a simple one: streamlining security.

Until the change, the Park Police, Metropolitan Police and Capitol Police had shared security jurisdiction over Union Square. To avoid unnecessary confusion, Gainer said, he and then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood recommended to leadership in both chambers to include language in the spending bill making Union Square a part of the formal Capitol complex.

This would make the Architect of the Capitol responsible for overseeing its maintenance and upkeep, with the Capitol Police in charge of its security.

Leadership listened.

“We have talked about this for many years,” Gainer said. “We’ve worked through the issues, but it was clumsy. ... It wasn’t the optimum way to manage the area.”


No Filming?

No commercial filming is allowed on the Capitol campus, but professional filmmakers looking for scenic shots of the famous structure could always shoot from afar from Union Square, which allowed such filming.

Now that the area is official Capitol property, it would appear that no commercial filming would be allowed anywhere in the vicinity.

The good news is that officials are working to make Union Square an exception to the no-filming rule, in deference to the old system. 

“We are working on a proposal to recommend to leadership that would actualize our belief that commercial filming should be permitted in the Union Square area,” Gainer told Roll Call of his collaboration with new House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, Capitol Police and counsels.

In the meantime, Gainer said a 90-day moratorium has been placed on enforcement of a commercial filming and photography ban in that area. 

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