New Construction on the National Mall

Dear Friends:

Today’s Examiner features two stories — Mall Sprawl and Norton: Nothing More on the Mall —  about the problem of continuing proposals for new construction on the National Mall, and efforts by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, our National Coalition to Save Our Mall, and federal and DC officials to find solutions.  We include both below.

(If you are having problems linking the URLs to the stories please cut and paste them into your browser to access the Examiner website.)


Mall sprawl

Michael Neibauer, The Examiner
July 31, 2008

WASHINGTON   Judy Scott Feldman, who has worked for years to slow the overcrowding of the National Mall, was caught off guard by what she sees as the latest piece of sprawl in America’s front yard.

Two years ago, preliminary designs for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial showed what appeared to be a tiny “Ranger and Visitor Information Kiosk” on the monument’s footprint. But by March, Feldman says, the proposal had morphed into an oversized, granite-paneled “Visitor Contact/Bookstore/Restroom Building” measuring 34 by 84 feet on the recreational field across West Basin Drive.

Like most new construction on the National Mall, Feldman contends, the building will degrade open spaces, cut into ball fields and obstruct vistas. The MLK facility — 750 feet from the FDR Memorial bookstore and 1,000 feet from the World War II Memorial restrooms — is just the latest example, she says, of the Mall becoming a mess.

“It’s turned into a major building on the polo grounds,” Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said as she toured the future location of the MLK Memorial at the intersection of Independence Avenue and West Basin. “These kind of things happen when you’re not paying attention.”

To the chagrin of many, the National Mall continues to be the target for planned construction. The so-called “Reserve” established by Congress in 2003 to protect the Mall has not proved effective.

The underground Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center is targeted for a site near the Lincoln Memorial.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated for a tract adjacent to the Washington Monument grounds on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets.

And the National Museum for the American Latino, while little more than a concept, is the subject of a congressionally chartered study commission.

“I despise the notion of any buildings on the Mall,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. “The Vietnam Veterans [Memorial Visitor Center] at least was put underground, but still the precedent was very bothersome.”

As it is most commonly defined, the National Mall runs east to west from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and north to south from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial.

In 2003, following the ugly fight over the location and design of the World War II Memorial, Congress declared the Mall a “substantially completed work of civic art” and prohibited future construction of any “commemorative work or visitor center.”

But the same legislation establishing the ban exempted the Vietnam Veterans Visitor Center, slated for a parcel bounded by Constitution Avenue, 23rd Street and Henry Bacon Drive.

Then, in what appeared to many to be a retreat from previous laws, Congress allowed the  Smithsonian to select a tract bounded by Constitution Avenue, Madison Drive, 14th Street and 15th Street for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The next major league fight for preservationists is likely the Latino museum. The push is already on: Congress has chartered a commission to “study the potential creation of a national museum in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the art, culture, and history of Hispanic Americans.”

“The contributions of Latinos in this country are innumerable, and I am delighted that we are one step closer to fulfilling the dream of having a Museum of the American Latino on the national mall,” Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., said in a statement issued earlier this year.

Feldman responded: “They want a site on the Mall. There are no sites on the Mall. Essentially we’re building monuments on top of monuments.”

Some new construction is necessary and not overly intrusive, officials said.

The MLK Memorial is to be a “destination unto itself” on the Mall, and its visitors will require certain amenities, said Peter May, associate regional director for lands, resources and planning with the National Park Service. The visitor building, he said, “really is minimal.”

“It’s precisely because of the distances [between memorials] that we determined it was necessary to have those facilities,” May said. “We’ve always tried to keep the encroachment of the memorial onto those fields to a minimum.”

But while the Park Service organizes a patchwork of facilities to benefit tour bus riders, tourists on foot get the scraps, preservationists say.

The grounds of the Mall are unappealing. Trash cans regularly overflow. Conspicuously placed restrooms are few and far between. Food services are virtually nonexistent. Transportation options are absent. And shade is a rare find.

Robert Cipriano, visiting the Mall from Long Island with his 8-year-old daughter and 9-year-old niece, said touring the area with children was challenging.

“They should have some sort of transportation, especially for the little ones,” Cipriano said.

Twenty-five million visitors a year will take their toll on the landscape, Park Service spokesman Bill Line said. As for amenities, the NPS is developing its 50-year National Mall Plan and, May said, “we are looking carefully at what facilities we have where and what needs to be added.”

But there is no blueprint for upgrading the entirety of the Mall.

The NPS oversees the land west of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and north of the Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue. The Smithsonian controls its buildings. The Architect of the Capitol holds sway over the Capitol grounds. And the General Services Administration has jurisdiction over the federal buildings that border the Mall.

Congress has ultimate authority — fragmented under nearly a dozen oversight committees.

“There are many problems with ‘The Mall’ and its constant politicizing is only one,” urban planner and D.C. resident Richard Layman said in an e-mail. “A big one is that the Mall is under the NPS. But bracketed by the Smithsonian. Congress meddles in both and underfunds both.”

Feldman’s coalition wants the Mall expanded to comprise much of East Potomac Park southeast of the Jefferson Memorial, South Capitol Street, the L’Enfant Promenade and even a section of Virginia shoreline. Congress, the coalition says, must charter a “McMillan-type National Commission” to prepare a vision and framework plan for the Mall as a whole.

The National Capital Planning Commission is plotting a similar course.

Its National Capital Framework Plan was unveiled July 10, the same day it approved preliminary drawings for the MLK visitor center. A multi-agency initiative, the framework plan is an effort to protect the Mall from overbuilding by preparing the surrounding areas for new museums, memorials and federal offices.

“We’re basically saying, ‘If you want to protect the space on the Mall and you still want to attract memorial sponsors, then provide them with exciting, attractive destinations they’d be interested in,’ ” said Lisa MacSpadden, the commission’s spokeswoman.

But preservationists are skeptical that Congress will ever have the will to say no to organized, voting activists seeking their place on the national common.

“Congress is not in the business of saying no,” Layman said. “It’s not what they do.”

Norton: Nothing more on the Mall

Michael Neibauer, The Examiner
July 31, 2008

WASHINGTON    Protecting the National Mall and its visitors has kept D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton busy.

Every so often, the Democrat says, someone in Congress introduces legislation calling for a new memorial or a monument on the Mall grounds. And every time, Norton says, she’s making phone calls and knocking on doors to oppose it.

“I think we’ve been able to get the message across,” Norton said. “Hey, don’t go there.”

But the Mall is where everyone wants to be. Saying ‘no’ has not been easy.

Area planners generally recognize “the need to relieve some of the pressure for monuments, memorials and the increasing number of activities on the Mall by making other important locations in the city visible, well-known, convenient and easily accessible,” D.C. Planning Director Harriett Tregoning told a congressional subcommittee in May.

That means moving people off the Mall.

“A high-performing transportation system that provides convenient, safe and equitable access to the National Mall and allows residents and visitors to experience the city by foot, bike or transit is a goal that is shared among the entities responsible for stewardship of the National Mall,” Tregoning said.


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