WORKSHOP II: THE MALL AS PART OF THE CITY OF WASHINGTON FINAL REPORT
Monday, May 10th, 2004 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Marshall Purnell FAIA (architect and planner) and Laura Richards (attorney and community activist) were moderators of this event.
The discussion is collected and edited here into five broad themes and concludes with a list of likes and dislikes. The term "DC Residents" as used here includes residents of the entire metropolitan region.
1. HOW DC RESIDENTS VIEW THE MALL, ITS USES, AND ITS PURPOSE
DC residents dont go to the Mall very often. Difficulty getting to the Mall, and the lack of parking there, are hindering usage. Very few bike trails are linked to the Mall. Dropping off family members by car is an option, but theres no place to park and wait, have a cup of coffee, read a book. There ought to be a large parking lot under the Mall. When there is an important event -- fireworks, protests -- residents go knowing that its going to be a hassle.
Many DC residents dont feel connected; it isnt their Mall. Its a place for other people -- especially tourists -- to enjoy. The Mall is a democratic place of Americana. Visitors go there to experience that feeling or to learn. Events of local interest dont often take place on the Mall. The perception is that the museums are static, very little changes or is different from week to week. You hear people saying "been there, done that."
But many people who use the Mall as a park on weekends -- for recreational sports, sitting on the grass, baseball must be locals, even though the it isnt within easy walking distance from residential areas. Its the locals who need the parking, the tourists expect to use tour buses and transit.
Its very hard to have a good time on the Mall when it rains. Shelter is difficult to find. In the winter, the Mall can be forbidding. The damp wind off the Potomac River is piercing. In the summer, even on humid days, it is hot, and dry, and dusty. The open Mall landscape lacks shade; the shady side panels lack places to sit and rest. And there is a formality about the Mall that is overbearing. Its not like Haines Point or Rock Creek where we feel like we can fire-up a grill. We seldom make a spontaneous visit to the Mall. The parking is just too difficult. But sometimes we ask ourselves if we are missing opportunities to participate in our nations history by not visiting the Mall more often.
2. LACK OF COORDINATION BETWEEN LOCAL AND FEDERAL INTERESTS
Why hasnt the city taken more ownership of the Mall? The city is missing a good bet on capturing tourists, and keeping tourist dollars in town. The city doesnt promote either Mall events to its residents, or DC events and opportunities to tourists. We definitely need a better partnership between the city and federal planning offices to initiate projects that will encourage local use of the Mall in new and different ways.
In part, the coordination problem stems from the fact that each museum has its own administration and there is no policy for coordinating or reconciling differences in usage, or for spreading the word about what is going on. The museums are fortress-like bastions with little connection to the out-of-doors. Few facilities in the open spaces of the Mall are designed to attract people. The riverfront is not well developed. But perhaps most important is the need for the City of Washington to take more initiative about the Mall.
3. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ISSUES
Looking at a colored map of DC clearly demonstrates the enormous importance of the "green" spaces, those under National Park Service control. But this federal agency the official steward of the Mall -- is struggling to maintain the parks under its mandate. It is under-funded and under-staffed. NPS policy is aimed more at using available resources to support the tourist visitor than to support the needs and interests of local residents. Often it adopts strategies that are not fully consistent making the Mall an educational and comfortable visitor experience. Increased funding would probably ameliorate some of these problems, but might not change NPS policy geared toward tourism.
Of course, there isnt a single organization having the authority, resources, and dedication to make the Mall an outstanding visitor experience for all categories of visitors. Is this a role the Conservancy might play?
4. SECURITY ISSUES
The beauty and accessibility of the Mall is rapidly being ruined by security efforts aimed at protecting our high-profile areas. Threat analysis seems to be driven by persons who fail to realize that planning for all terrorism threats is impossible. Most visitors are not staying away from the Mall because of concerns about security. But long lines form at museum checkpoints, damaging the value of the experience and the openness and beauty of the Mall. Security systems should not be imposed just because we cant think of what else to do, yet feel compelled to do something in order to feel more "secure."
5. NEW VISIONS FOR THE MALL
We need to re-imagine the Mall. During the 20th century, the temporary buildings came down and the Mall was finally opened up. Now there is room for a million citizens. Where else can we stand and be reminded so clearly what it means to be an American, and that our democracy is alive and well? At all costs we must preserve this openness. We must resist more WWII memorials.
One of the more interesting things that has happened recently is the MLK plaque being placed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the spot where Dr. King stood for his I Have a Dream speech. A little gesture like this adds layers of history without contributing to the clutter of the grand space.
Nighttime events such as the Memorial Day concerts and the Fourth of July celebrations show how popular evening use can be, particularly during the summer months. We need to develop more such events. Could Metro be free for local citizens on such occasions? Could museums take turns staying open into the evening hours?
There is no place in the city where a Mall visitor -- local resident or tourist -- can go to get the big picture. A Mall visitors center is needed. (The possible role of the new City Museum was not discussed, nor is it clear that the City Museum is set up to fill that role.) The now-vacant Arts and Industries Building, a remnant of America's first centennial, could become a visitors center for the Mall, a place to meet, be oriented, and find shelter. Its location is central enough to tie into the route of the Downtown Circulator, which could connect to remote parking.
We need the Mall to be visionary in spirit, exciting and hopeful. We must make certain that it is a broad and collective vision. We could probably expand the Mall geographically to include adjacent land for example, East and West Potomac Park, or even the Anacostia Waterfront and add monuments and attractions that reinforced the vision of democracy. Could this be done without diluting the Malls core meaning? Allowing for expansion would alleviate pressures for overbuilding on the existing open space.
6. LIKES AND DISLIKES ABOUT THE MALL.
The workshop ended with a summary of likes and dislikes:
- The beauty of the grand open vistas, with monumental focal points and museums, and open spaces teeming with people
- The mix of people enjoying the Mall as tourists, residents, workers, on a day-to-day basis
- The profound sense of being an American and the ideals of American identity that being on the Mall conjures up
- The open spaces used for large events like the Folk-Life Festival, Boy Scouts, Black family reunions, and of course the Fourth of July celebration and the "marches"
- The opportunities to learn about our history, and sometimes even participate in making it
- And everything is free.
- The lack of convenient parking, restrooms, shelter, informal places to gather and interesting places to eat
- The poor maintenance, dead grass, snow fences, ugly security barriers, and anything remotely like retail
- Blocked vistas and endless construction
- The NFL Day on the Mall
- The long lines of tour buses, often with motors idling.