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02.03.2010
Don't Tread On Me
Plans to spruce up National Mall include radical ideas
The National Park Service is looking for ways to spruce up the National Mall.
Greg Sorens

Many thousands of public comments have poured in since the National Park Service (NPS) announced their intention two years ago to renovate Washington, D.C.’s overused, unkempt National Mall. The NPS has converted that feedback into five potential plans for a new Mall, described and evaluated in an environmental impact statement released at the end of last year.

“It’s the first time these plans have been analyzed,” said Susan Spain, the project executive director for the National Mall plan. Besides the baseline “no-action” plan, the four others would cost between $500 million and $700 million and all share such features as restoring the Ulysses S. Grant memorial and performing basic maintenance on the grounds. Beyond that, each alternative emphasizes a different primary role for the Mall.

One version gives priority to the area’s historic landmark status, restoring vistas by removing its carousel and also the south ramp cloverleaf around the Lincoln Memorial. Another alternative focuses instead on the potential of the Mall to serve as a central gathering place for demonstrations and festivals. It recommends removing the reflecting pool in Union Square to free up extra space for crowds and for utility infrastructure to accommodate those crowds. In addition, hard surfaces would be added to the Mall, along with expanded restrooms and two new parking garages.

A third emphasizes the sustainability and recreational uses of the Mall, connecting it to its surroundings and to the Potomac River waterfront. Gravel walkways would be replaced with porous paving, and bike trails would be separated from pedestrian walkways to encourage recreational cycling. The Constitution Gardens lake would be reconstructed to be self-sustaining for fish and plants, and the Capitol Reflecting Pool would be replaced with a shallow pool that could be converted into an ice skating rink.

The park service’s so-called “Preferred Alternative” combines elements from all three plans. It includes proposals for adding bike trails and utility infrastructure, narrowing the Capitol Reflecting Pool (but not removing it) to improve circulation, and replacing compacted soil with engineered soil capable of withstanding intensive use.

Other public suggestions did not make it into the NPS’s final plans. Proposals to narrow the Mall’s center grass panels were rejected for compromising the original design’s formal spatial relationships. The relocation of the Grant Memorial was deemed overly radical, and the removal of Constitution Avenue was rejected for being economically infeasible and disruptive to the city’s circulation patterns.

A large component of the public engagement process consisted of correcting misconceptions about both the Mall and the plans, Spain said. Some misconceptions were minor; for instance, many did not realize how little of the Mall’s paving was porous. Others were more fundamental: Nearly 16,500 expressed concern that the renovation would affect the public’s First Amendment rights to demonstrate.

The process for soliciting feedback will continue through March 18, after which the NPS will review new comments and solicit feedback from other agencies before settling on a way forward. Whichever plan wins, there is no question that a renovation will take place. At an estimated cost of $408 million, even the no-action plan is hardly no-action. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, which needs to be addressed,” Spain said.

A version of this article appeared iAN 02_02.03.2010.

Julia Galef