Dear Coalition Friends:
Today’s Washington Post — District of Columbia Thursday special section — contains a front page story about recent changes to the Commemorative Works Act and a picture of Chair Judy Feldman standing in front of the “Closed” sign at the Washington Monument. Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) is truly a champion of the Mall.
Preservation Law Puts Leash on Mall Projects
Congress Says Core Is Built Out, But Some Construction to Proceed
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2003; Page DZ10
When President Bush signed a bill Monday calling for a new educational center to be built at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 11 of 15 pages of the legislation addressed a separate issue: a ban on future memorials, monuments and interpretive centers on the Mall.
The ban describes the cross-axis of the Mall — from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from Lafayette Square to the Jefferson Memorial — as “a substantially completed work of civic art.” From now on, the measure says, no commemorative work or visitor center can be approved for placement within that cross-axis.
The ban came in the form of an amendment to the 1986 Commemorative Works Act, and for the last three years it went nowhere in Congress, dragging down the Vietnam Veterans center bill, to which it was attached. Opposition from lawmakers who wanted to preserve the possibility of a Ronald Reagan memorial on the Mall was largely responsible for the blockage. But increasing public concern for preservation of the Mall — plus a few changes in the makeup of Congress — smoothed the route to passage this year, according to lawmakers.
“The purpose is to set aside the Mall on the basis that it’s pretty well developed, and that it was designed to be an open space from its beginnings,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), one of the lawmakers who attached the ban to the education center bill.
Federal panels responsible for approving development in the city’s monumental core already follow guidelines that steer proposals away from the Mall, but critics said those guidelines were too easy to circumvent.
The newly passed measure, establishing a “Reserve” from which new monuments are barred, gives the existing guidelines legal teeth, according to planners. They believe it will encourage future works to be located in areas of the city targeted for new development, such as the Southwest waterfront, which city leaders hope to enliven.
“The challenge for us is to get the word out that there are other prominent sites near the Mall and in other parts of the city,” said Patricia E. Gallagher, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the federal panels that must approve proposals. “A new museum or memorial in those areas can be part of a wonderful redevelopment strategy.”
Supporters of the amendment called it a landmark in the city’s planning history, arguing that Washington’s open spaces have fallen victim to a modern impulse to exhaustively memorialize people and events. The drive to limit development on the Mall gathered momentum during the mid-1990s, when the debate over the World War II Memorial prompted many critics to argue that the large construction project marred the area’s scenic atmosphere.
A few years later, when the Smithsonian Museum for the American Indian was built on one of the last remaining spots along the Mall’s row of institutions, backers of other projects felt a sense of urgency to claim whatever premier positions might be left, Gallagher said. Recent proposals for an underground center at the Washington Monument, in addition to the approved center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also spurred Congress to explore conservation efforts, according to those who promoted the legislation.
“If that [ban] wasn’t in there, you just know that as soon as the Vietnam underground center got through, Korea and World War II would be next,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.
In the past 20 years, Congress authorized 21 new memorials, seven of which have been built in the Mall area. In addition, projects are getting larger and more elaborate. The World War II Memorial, for example, includes 56 17-foot-high pillars, two four-story arches and a sunken plaza with a new pool.
Preservationists, like Feldman, who believe the Mall has already suffered from a blight of engraved and sculpted stone note that the ban won’t result in a total halt on new construction. Several proposals have won preliminary approval and were exempted from the ban, including memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Paine.
A planned Smithsonian museum of African American history also would be unaffected, legislators said. Earlier this year, a panel picked a preferred location near the northeast corner of the Capitol grounds on Third Street NW, which sits just outside the boundaries of the Reserve. However, backers of that proposal last week said they have reconsidered that site and are concentrating on other potential locations a short distance from the Mall.
Members of Congress said the ban could affect potential projects like the Museum of the American Latino, which some legislators are trying to advance as the next in a line of Smithsonian museums. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said a Mall location would be appropriate to tell the story of the nation’s largest minority group. Such a site would be blocked by the new ban, and Becerra said other locations would likely be acceptable.
If it hadn’t been for concerns over a potential Reagan monument — and, to a lesser extent, one for Dwight D. Eisenhower — the bill likely would have passed in previous congressional sessions, according to several Republicans and Democrats who worked on getting the ban approved.
Then-Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) proposed the Reagan Memorial in 2001 and got support from, among others, House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert (R-Ill.). But the Bush administration reminded Congress that Reagan himself, in 1986, signed the original version of the Commemorative Works Act, which barred any memorial to an individual from being built on the Mall until 25 years after the person’s death.
Then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) blocked the proposed construction ban each time it came up in Congress, but Gramm retired last year, and congressional opposition lessened.
“I think most recognized that, first, we could always do something [honoring Reagan] somewhere else, and that, also, he also has a couple things already recognizing him,” said Thomas, referring to the International Trade Center building on 15th Street and National Airport, which both carry the Republican president’s name.
In addition to the pending projects that the ban wouldn’t affect, others might be approved in the future with special legislative language, some said. A bill that condones a new monument could simply include the language “notwithstanding the Commemorative Works Act.”
“It’s always a concern that Congress could exempt a project, but this does make it more difficult,” said Feldman. “Congress would have to come out and state outright that ‘We don’t believe in the law we just passed.’ ”
One other proposal, for an underground center at the Washington Monument, might bypass congressional approval altogether. Before withdrawing the proposal last month, citing public and congressional opposition, the National Park Service had called the proposal a safety enhancement that didn’t need congressional authorization.
Feldman said she fears that the agency will someday resurrect the project and argue that the Commemorative Works Act doesn’t apply to it.
“It’s not at all clear the Park Service is dropping it and won’t just try to piecemeal it later,” she said.
The Park Service did not answer questions sent by e-mail and left on a phone message.
Supporters said they hope the ban will boost respect for the Memorial and Museums Plan, a blueprint accepted by the federal design panels in 2001.
The plan identified 102 sites outside the Mall where commemorative works could be located. A few new projects have been placed outside the Mall, including a memorial to disabled veterans — near South Capitol Street and Constitution Avenue — and one to Tomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, on Massachusetts Avenue NW near Florida Avenue. But the sponsors of numerous other projects have pushed for exceptions.
“We’ve done so much work to identify these other wonderful locations,” Gallagher said. “Now we don’t have to battle with sponsors and Congress on a case-by-case basis.”
The alternate sites are scattered throughout the city. The plan divided the city into three parts: the Reserve; a sector called Area I, immediately adjacent to the Mall; and Area II, which encompasses the rest of the city, with an emphasis on circles and squares along major avenues, waterfront sites, scenic overlooks and the axes of North, South and East Capitol streets.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company