NCPC Mall Projects: Potomac Park Levee, Mall signs & Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center

Dear Coalition Friends:

Tomorrow, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) will be reviewing three Mall projects at its monthly public meeting:

  1. Potomac Park Levee Improvements, National Mall, 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.
  2. National Mall and East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. – Pedestrian Wayfinding and Sign Program
  3. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center, on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial bounded by Constitution Avenue, Henry Bacon Drive, Lincoln Memorial Circle and 23rd Street, NW

The meeting begins at 12:30 p.m. at NCPC offices, 401 9th Street, NW, North Lobby, Suite 500.  For more information, and to read the Executive Director’s recommendations, visit NCPC’s website or call 202-482-7200.  This will probably be a long meeting, ending at 5 p.m., so you might want to call to find out what time the items will be reviewed.  If you wish to speak on any project, you must call to register by noon today.

The Vietnam Visitor Center is an “Informational Presentation” which means that no public comments will be permitted.

Regarding Wayfinding and Signs:  We have not seen the National Park Service’s Pedestrian Wayfinding system for the Mall since March when it was presented for review to NCPC.  At that time, we wrote the Park Service and NCPC pointing out that the NPS signage identifies the Mall not by its historic concept as a nationally significant symbolic landscape —  the “National Mall” — but instead by NPS jurisdiction through its administrative unit “National Mall & Memorial Parks.”  This is confusing to visitors who understand the Mall not as a collection of jurisdictions but as a place that encompasses more than just Park Service land including the Smithsonian museums, National Gallery of Art, Capitol, White House, and more.  We will see how that matter is resolved as NPS seeks final approval for this portion of its Mall signage program.  The signage project is being funded in part by the National Park Service’s fundraising partner, the Trust for the National Mall.

The Vietnam Visitor Center project, sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the National Park Service,* was last reviewed by NCPC in December 2007, at which time the federal review agencies and members of the public raised serious concerns about the project’s size and visual intrusion on the Lincoln Memorial grounds, its ramped entrance that mimics the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and other matters.  A key objection is that the Center will detract from the contemplative quality of the Memorial itself, as well as the Lincoln Memorial.  You can read our email UPDATE on the project from 2007.

On April 16, 2009, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the latest design concept for the Visitor Center.

After that, on May 4th, the public was able to see the design and comment on it during a public consultation meeting on Monday.   Imagine our surprise to see that the now-retired lead Park Service person for the 2007 public consultation process on this Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center is now working as an advisor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

In its April 24th letter to NPS about the Visitor Center, the Commission of Fine Arts notes that the design has reduced its impact on the setting but that commissioners “continued to advocate for minimizing the visibility of what is intended to be an underground facility and encouraged further program reductions to lessen its impact.  They continued to express concern that the proposed entry sequence of a descending walkway along a tapered wall would be inappropriately reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial itself and should be modified.”

*The Commemorative Works Act specifies that a memorial sponsor seeking a site on federal land work with the National Park Service (NPS) or the General Services Administration (GSA) in identifying a location for a memorial and developing its design.  Congress thus puts the NPS in the position of both preserving the federal land and public open space — in this case of the National Mall — as part of its Park Service mandate while also construction new structures on that land.  The NPS, representing the Department of Interior, then votes on approvals in its role on the National Capital Planning Commission.  NPS (or Interior) then signs the construction permit.  In my essay, “Preservation and Change on the Mall Today,” in the book The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, I describe how this conflicting role puts NPS on both sides of controversial projects and erodes public perception of the integrity of the memorial building process.


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