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.
“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 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.
Norton said she was “elated” by officials’ goals to work toward a permanent policy to allow film crews to shoot there.
If consensus cannot be reached on such a policy, however, D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development Director Crystal Palmer said the effect on the District, which gets paid when local film crews come to town, would be “substantial.”
“This is a major venue for the District when it goes to market,” said Palmer, who added that her organization met recently with Norton, members of the local film community and representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America. “We want the commercial end of the business, the Hollywood production base, because they are very, very lucrative.”
Meanwhile, advocates are concerned about changes to the permitting process for groups looking to demonstrate at Union Square, traditionally a popular site for protesters.
The National Park Service has a first-come, first-served permit policy for groups looking to demonstrate on areas that it oversees, said attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which represents protest groups.
She suggests the Capitol Police have a spotty track record of adhering to a consistent policy for issuing permits.
Verheyden-Hilliard said the transfer could create a situation in which attorneys have to start from “square one,” as it were, in forcing the Capitol Police’s hand in developing standards for allowing demonstrations.
“The Park Service has been subject to 40 years of really intense litigation ... to get to a place where its [assembly] policies passed constitutional muster,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
Gainer said he “wholeheartedly disagreed” with Verheyden-Hilliard’s suggestion that Capitol Hill’s law enforcement community was “arbitrary” in handling protests.
Norton added that if last week’s Occupy Congress protest was any indication, Capitol Police is plenty accommodating of demonstrators. “They came a lot closer to the Capitol than Union Square,” she said.
The transfer of land away from the Park Service also puts a wrinkle in a plan to put millions of dollars into refurbishing an area in need of significant maintenance.
The Trust for the National Mall has been hosting a professional competition to propose redesigns of three areas, Union Square among them.
Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, said she is still hopeful that Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers will be able to implement the winning design proposal for Union Square.
“He is a member of our steering committee, and he is very eager to continue to work with us and see the designs that are being developed,” Cunningham said. “It’s our intent, once the competition is done, to turn over the winning design for the AOC to implement.”
After proposals were selected, the trust planned to raise money to turn each into reality. But that can’t happen for Union Square now — the money has to come out of the AOC’s budget.
And even if Ayers is onboard with the design, getting an appropriation for the needed funds could be a tough sell. Funding for his agency was cut in fiscal 2012 by more than 5 percent from fiscal 2011 levels, and he has cited a $1.5 billion backlog in existing maintenance projects across the Capitol campus.
Ayers’ spokeswoman, Eva Malecki, said the Architect of the Capitol plans to “focus ... on making repairs to the Reflecting Pool, Grant Memorial and the surrounding area.”
“Securing the funds to do that won’t be easy,” she conceded, “but Congress would not have reacquired this property if they were not committed to restoring and maintaining it on par with the rest of the Capitol grounds.”
As for whether Ayers would take on the task of implementing the trust’s winning proposal, Malecki said, “Congressional leaders have given Mr. Ayers no direction to request, consider, support or otherwise promote proposals from the trust or any other entity to redesign Union Square’s key features or alter the property’s current uses.”
Norton agreed that appropriators will, if not give money for a full redesign of Union Square, at least endorse a budget that allows the AOC to meet the demands of its new jurisdiction, especially hosting the annual Independence Day celebration.
“Let them try to call off the Fourth of July or leave the mess there after everyone’s gone,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.