A Facelift for Washington’s National Mall

It didn't take long for the red flags to go up over the weekend after 17 ducks mysteriously showed up dead in a reflecting pool at the eastern end of the National Mall--directly in front of the U.S. Capitol building. Tests for hazardous chemical, biological and radiological materials allowed federal agencies to rule out any security or health threat. But those familiar with the site know this was hardly the first time dead birds or fish have turned up in the stagnant, putrid-smelling muck filling the Mall's lakes and reflecting pools.

Crumbling sidewalks, dead grass and water dirty enough to kill animals: it's a sorry state of affairs, prompting a growing number of activists to proclaim America's "front yard" a national disgrace and to launch a series of plans aimed at the most sweeping revitalization of the area in more than a century.

The 200-year-old national park's age spots are readily evident. A sea wall propping up the area by the Jefferson Memorial is slowly sinking into the tidal basin; flooded and cracked walkways are cordoned off. Maps are hard to find and outdated, omitting the Franklin Roosevelt and Korean War memorials, which have been in place for more than a decade. Throughout the 1,000-acre Mall, the footprints of 25 million yearly visitors have worn bare patches in the turf where grass no longer grows. Food, water and bathrooms are scarce, as are parking, public transportation and shady places to sit.

"People think of the Mall as this great inspiring landscape, which it is, but up close it's clear that as a nation we're not giving it the attention it needs," says Judy Feldman, head of the National Coalition to Save the Mall, an eight-year-old advocacy group pressing for long-term revitalization of the Mall and its surroundings. "I just got back from a trip to Europe, where historical places are preserved as vibrant, living spaces. To come back to see this, the condition of the Mall is an embarrassment."

National Park Service representatives responsible for the Mall's upkeep say they do the best they can with the resources they have--which total only $31 million each year. A new sea wall alone would cost $20 million, they estimate; a total overhaul would run an estimated $350 to $500 million. Absent the cash, the Park Service has applied Band-Aids over the years--temporary fencing and splotches of asphalt. The situation has grown so dire that park officials have resorted to tearing up the gardens installed by Lady Bird Johnson--a widely praised patron of America's public spaces--for lack of cash to handle the upkeep.

"The area is being loved to death," said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line, who says more than 3,000 permits for demonstrations and special events are granted each year. "This is one of the most intensely used public spaces not only in this country but in the world. If 25 million people walked through your front yard, it might not look so nice either. So we are asking the American public what they want this space to become."

Last Thursday, the National Capital Planning Commission and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts unveiled a draft for a long-term plan to redesign the city's "monumental core," encompassing the areas immediately surrounding the Mall. The plan would constitute the most ambitious re-imagining of the capital's iconic center since a group of politicians led by Sen. James McMillan of Michigan updated the original in 1902. The new framework calls for developers to reduce stress on the Mall by integrating the downtown area with the nearby waterfront. The plan would allow striking thoroughfares and well-developed public transport to connect the space--and envisions future memorials, museums, shops and restaurants to enliven the otherwise bureaucratic urban landscape. The plan is open for public comment until Oct. 10.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is cost. Although the NCPC projects will be spread out over the next 50 years and doesn't carry a concrete price tag yet, the cost of redevelopment will inevitably be astronomical. But planners say the time is ripe for investment. They cite urban-planning concerns like sustainability and the need to attract a smart, young workforce. And they recognize that they're running out of room for one of the Mall's key functions--hosting memorials. At present, the Mall is home to more than 70, and several more were grandfathered in before Congress barred any more--arguing in the Reserve Act of 2003 that any future memorials will need to be built elsewhere.

"We've got marching orders from Congress that we can't put new commemorative memorials on the Mall. But the National Mall provides a forum for a national narrative, so we have to find a way to grow that quality elsewhere as well," says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. "At the same time, the real-estate district downtown has been so successful that significant market pressure will allow private investment to play a large role [in the development], taking the pressure off federal funding."

D.C. developer John E. (Chip) Akridge last November created a vehicle to address the Mall's immediate needs, starting the Trust for the National Mall as the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service. Modeling his group on New York's Central Park Conservancy, he's aiming to raise $500 million. With more than $2 million already in the bank, the trust has handed over $277,000 for its first project: informational signs pointing visitors to sites around the Mall, which are slated to be in place by September.

"It's great to think about what it'll look like in 50 years, but I want to know what it'll be like in the next five years," says Caroline Cunningham, president of the trust. "If we wait any longer, I'm afraid that it just won't happen. For every year we don't do something, the costs [in deferred maintenance] go up exponentially."

The Bush administration agrees. Officials independently created a $2.2 million public-private grant for the Mall this past April to get the ball rolling. Now, proponents are hoping the buzz around the NCPC's broad urban vision could help spur support for a $100 million appropriation for the Mall, recently recommended by a House subcommittee. That proposal, which would help jump-start some major improvements, is pending on Capitol Hill.

After eight years spent sounding the alarms about the Mall's condition, Feldman says she's pleased with the new developments but says she hopes more can be done; an independent commission is in order, she argues, to help balance different agencies' needs. "We need bigger questions to be answered than the individual agencies' priorities, with certain groups focused on monuments and others on the city," she says. "What is the overall narrative we want to tell in the nation's capital?"

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