National Mall in crisis: When will Congress listen?

By Gordon Binder

Mike Magner’s eye-opening article in “Roll Call,” The National Mall Faces Crises of Funding and Identity (October 11, 2016), should be required reading for every Member of Congress. The backlog of maintenance and upkeep, estimated at more than $4 billion for a whole variety of needs, also should serve as a wakeup call for all Americans who care about this iconic landscape, known far and wide as the stage for American democracy.

Spotty grass at the Washington Monument (Photo courtesy David Luria)
Spotty grass at the Washington Monument (Photo courtesy David Luria)

Thankfully, some progress is evident. The Trust for the National Mall, cited in the article as a partner of the National Park Service, should be applauded for its good work. But even here, acknowledged in the article, not many high level donors are game to support maintenance projects, from roof repairs to water leaks, that rightfully should be addressed routinely as they occur, with appropriations from Congress.

No matter how well the Trust does, it won’t be able to address the broader challenges facing the Mall. The potential for flooding, for instance, remains a constant threat. To facilitate lawn maintenance by the Park Service, public access is being restricted. Popular events such as the National Book Festival have been directed to find other quarters. There’s even some indication that recreation leagues, long a fixture on the Mall for sports-minded Washingtonians, are being asked to seek other venues.

Though Congress declared the Mall a “substantially completed work of civic art” in 2003, new visitor centers and other facilities are nonetheless given the go-ahead. No one questions the importance of the newest museum on the Mall, the Museum of African American History and Culture. Does anyone think it will be the last? New memorials and museums are continually proposed for the American story is ongoing.

Perhaps the deteriorating state of the Mall documented in Magner’s article should come as no surprise. No single entity oversees the Mall and attends to maintenance and upkeep. Indeed, there are more than a half dozen institutions and planning agencies that have some jurisdiction over Mall grounds, not to mention a slew of congressional committees and subcommittees. Dialogue, coordination? Sorry, these entities don’t really talk to one another, let alone seek common purpose.

The 25 million Americans and visitors from abroad who come to see the world-class museums and monuments deserve better.

That’s why the National Mall Coalition has long advocated for a new comprehensive plan for the Mall that expands and designates its boundaries (little known fact: the Mall’s boundaries have never been formally set). The last plan dates to the early 1900s, more than a century ago, and that plan, the McMillan plan, led to an expansion to accommodate the Lincoln Memorial. A new plan is sorely needed to identify sites for new facilities; to provide amenities now lacking, from parking to restrooms to snack bars to places to sit outside; to designate areas for public gatherings and areas off limits for such events. Along with the plan, a new institutional structure is needed to convene the Mall’s overseers and provide finally the vision, coordination, and upkeep this iconic setting deserves.

• Gordon Binder is a Senior Fellow at World Wildlife Fund.


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