Post & Feldman: We Must Save America’s Mall

Dear Coalition Friends:

In today’s Washington Post, on the “Close to Home” (back) page of the Outlook Section, has this letter written by your chair:

We Must Save America’s Mall

Sunday, September 28, 2003; Page B08

We are on the verge of losing the heart and soul of our national Mall.

From Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall has become a permanent construction site. The 1791 L’Enfant concept of it as a “place of general resort” with “public walks” is being buried by stone and concrete.

The demand of special interests for more memorials and museums, however worthy, diminishes the vision of the Mall as our common ground — the geographic embodiment of our founding principles and a symbol of our open democratic society. Security measures that erect barriers and restrict public access — such as the proposed walls and tunnel at the Washington Monument — reflect fear, not the optimism inherent in a democracy.

Planning processes have failed the Mall. Too many authorities have jurisdiction there, and they generate too many planning documents, including at least seven security plans for different parts of the Mall and its monuments.

We have laws and regulations to protect the Mall, but neither the Commemorative Works Act of 1986 nor the National Capital Planning Commission’s Memorials and Museums Master Plan has succeeded in locating museums in sites off the Mall. The public also has been shut out of any meaningful participation in deciding the Mall’s future.

We need to restore the Mall’s vitality. We need a plan that everyone can get behind, with mechanisms to enforce and implement it.

The Central Park Conservancy provides one model for the Mall’s revitalization. A group of citizens in New York City, later joined by city and state leaders and agencies, took Central Park from its dangerous, dilapidated condition of the 1960s and transformed it into a model urban park teeming with life. The conservancy resurrected the historic Frederick Law Olmsted design and adapted it to a modern city. The throngs of New Yorkers and tourists who now enjoy the park in all its variety and complexity ensure that the common vision of the people’s park triumphs over special interests.

The Mall needs a conservancy of its own that could initiate and coordinate planning for the revitalization of this great open public space. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall is working with the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and the Trust for the National Mall to form just such a conservancy.

One primary goal would be to consolidate all the plans for the Mall — the comprehensive plan, security plans, the Memorials and Museums Master Plan, the open-space plan, etc. — into one holistic concept. Other goals would be to identify what needs to be fixed, from maintenance to laws; plan improvements that enhance the visitor experience, such as benches, greenery, flowers, restrooms, food and water elements including fountains; and establish enforceable rules and guidelines.

A first step would be to identify who should be involved in the planning, including governmental and professional groups and the public. Then we would need to identify what needs to be fixed and improved. And, most complex but also most important, we need to find a common vision.

Planning can be dangerous. It can restrict vision, impose the will of a powerful elite or produce an unrealistic ideal.

The Mall has been lucky until now. In 1791 President George Washington chose Pierre (Peter) L’Enfant to plan the new nation’s capital. L’Enfant envisioned the city as an expression of the organization of our democracy, centered on the Capitol, with the Mall as a “Grand Avenue” lined with gardens and cultural institutions.

The subsequent McMillan Plan of 1901-1902, intended to deal with a century of haphazard growth on the Mall, was the work of a group of preeminent architects and artists, including Charles McKim, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and Augustus St. Gaudens. They brought the “City Beautiful” idea to Washington, envisioning the Mall as a formal parkland framed by great classical buildings, an expression not only of democracy but also of power.

Now, at the turn of the 21st century, the McMillan vision seems outmoded. Public uses — from July 4 celebrations, to civil rights to simple recreational activities — have made the Mall truly the people’s park. That is why planning now must be open and democratic.

Most of us picture in our mind’s eye a postcard Mall — a swath of green stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, teeming with pedestrians, joggers and buses disgorging tourists at the museums and memorials. But that is a fast-disappearing reality, and it will vanish if we do not take action. A Mall conservancy would be the first step to saving America’s Mall.

— Judy Scott Feldman
chairs the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

To see the article and the accompanying photograph of people relaxing around the base of the Washington Monument, go to: