May 15, 2006
Building a 'Third Century Mall'
By Mike Rupert,
WASHINGTON - Washington has more than 400 municipal and national parks covering thousands of acres across all corners of the city. But for the estimated 26 million tourists who will converge on the District this summer, the National Mall is the only one most of them will ever see.
And although 98 percent of visitors were "satisfied" with the National Mall, according to a 2005 survey by the National Park Service - a statistic echoed in a recent informal survey of 100 tourists by The Examiner - a group of citizens now hopes to expand it and make it more visitor-friendly.
The Dutton family's first trip from Georgia to the National Mall was everything they expected.
"It is beautiful," Tery Dutton said as her family wandered through Lafayette Square outside the White House gates on a recent sunny afternoon. "I am surprised by the cleanliness because of the amount of people coming here
and how quiet it is."
The Duttons' experience is not unlike that of millions of other visitors who come to the National Mall each year, according to the National Park Service.
"I am really impressed," said Jeff Bohnenkap, 51, who arrived last week from Iowa. "They are doing a great job keeping it clean, I haven't see any trash on the ground."
Susan Copeland, of Virginia Beach, agreed.
"If any place is supposed be a symbol of a good-looking USA, it's Washington, D.C.," said Copeland, who was visiting for the fifth time with her husband. "It's what I expect."
The news doesn't surprise most National Mall watchdogs.
"Tourists that come to Washington for the first time are thrilled to be in the presence of government, thrilled to be among the beautiful monuments and the beautiful museums," said Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. "But what they don't see during their short stay is how deficient the Mall, the actual park space, is and what it is rapidly becoming."
'Disneyland on the Potomac'
A recent report done for the National Mall Conservancy Initiative showed a significant lack of drinking fountains, benches, parking, convenient restrooms, restaurants, historic signs and widely available maps of the whole park. The National Mall, Feldman says, is rapidly becoming a "Disneyland on the Potomac," where people simply move from monument to monument, museum to museum, by tour bus and trolley.
Feldman leads a group that is asking Congress to enforce a 2003 construction moratorium and wants to convince officials to expand the Mall to the Potomac River and beyond. Pierre L'Enfant, who designed Washington, never envisioned the Mall as a "museum itself" filled only with monuments and icons, advocates say.
Tom, 38, who plays pickup soccer near the Ellipse, often is forced to sneak behind a tree in plain view of the White House to relieve himself.
"I drive over here and park my car on the street after 6:30 p.m. when restrictions are lifted, play and head home," said the Arlington native, who asked that his last name not be used. "It would be nice to at least get a drink for under $2 and maybe use a more appropriate restroom.
"But everything else essentially shuts down just as people are getting out of work."
The National Park Service, which is working to cut its total operating budget by 20 percent, has very little money for capital improvements. Several park officials say their budgets are stretched so tight that they are barely able to maintain basic services.
But the National Mall's $29.5 million operational budget "continues to meet all of its core operations and visitor services needs," Stephen Lorenzetti, NPS deputy superintendent for the National Mall, told The Examiner in a statement.
Security and Safety
A lot has changed on the National Mall since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Concrete bomb barriers disguised as flower planters line major portions of Constitution and Independence avenues and circle major monuments. There are new security checkpoints at museums. And parking lots and portions of streets near the White House, the Capitol, and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials have been closed.
Critics say the security enhancements are "restricting access" to national institutions. And because of a lack of master security plan, the Mall now has the "unsightly" security barriers at the Washington Monument.
"We're not against security barriers, but they're in the middle of the open grass and not at the street," Feldman said.
Tourists seem to be split on the issue.
"I am a little bit disappointed about all the construction and renovation around the Mall because there are places you can't go," said 43-year-old Scott Shiffman of Hermosa Beach, Calif., who was visiting relatives.
Tom Jackson, 52, from Wichita, Kan., said he doesn't mind the additional security or the long lines that come with it.
"When you stop to think that Flight 93 was headed straight toward that building," Jackson said, pointing at the Capitol dome, "it really puts this entire place into perspective, and I think they have done a nice job blending it all in."
"The National Mall is treated as a collection of parts," said Feldman, referring to the dozens of agencies that oversee it. "Each agency respects the power and authority of the others, but no one has the best interest of the Mall at heart."
Feldman points to the successes of the conservancy groups that revitalized New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area as models for what could happen here.
The National Park Service, meanwhile, "believes that the National Mall is a completed work of civic art and that has been our position for some time," said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Capital Region of the NPS.
The lack of a "vision" for the future has led to sporadic and often conflicting projects - including nine currently under way - to sprout up despite the congressional "moratorium."
It's only the monuments and museums that officials - and the tourists - appear to be focused on. Advocates are pressing to make the Mall into a lively urban park to be coveted by both locals and tourists and not just a daytime thoroughfare between the museums.
Alan Spears, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the new ideas being introduced for the Mall - including new waterfront museums and monuments, marinas, canals and the annexation of East Potomac Park - could put a new face on the Mall and better synergize with parks in the District.
"Changing the Mall should be as difficult as changing the Constitution," Feldman says. "Instead, the Mall is basically fair game for any well-connected group that's able to raise a few hundred thousand dollars."
Who's running this place?
The National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Architect of the Capitol, the General Services Administration, the District government, the National Gallery of Art, and the American Battle Monuments Commission and at least as many congressional oversight committees all have oversight of the National Mall.
Who are these people?
A National Park Service visitor survey in 2003 found that 3 percent of visitors to the National Mall are international, 17 percent are local, and 70 percent come from somewhere else in the U.S.
Who, what and when
» The 1791 plan of the National Mall was designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
» The 1901 McMillan Commission plan reflects the present Mall structure.
» The Mall is specifically defined as the land stretching from the Washington Monument to the United States Capitol. More popularly, it includes the entire area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol.
» Also sometimes included in the Mall are West Potomac Park and Constitution Gardens, areas the National Coalition to Save Our Mall would like to see better incorporated into an expanded Mall.
» New memorials and facilities for the Mall include the Martin Luther King Jr. and John Adams memorials, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the U.S. Capitol and Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor centers, and concessions buildings at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
Aurelie Fontaine, Pauline Froissart and Scott McCabe of The Examiner contributed to this report.