Infrastructure Upgrades can be a Turning Point for the National Mall

On June 24th, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the Smithsonian Institution’s much-reduced plan for its museum buildings on the south side of the National Mall. The National Mall Coalition submitted testimony supporting this simpler plan to revitalize and upgrade the Castle and Arts & Industries Building.

But we also identified renewable energy and flood mitigation alternatives that satisfy Smithsonian needs while also saving millions of dollars in construction, maintenance, and energy costs – namely, aspects of the Coalition’s National Mall Underground facility.

In addition, we described the benefits and advantages of collaboration among all Mall stakeholders – including Smithsonian, National Park Service, National Gallery of Art, General Services Administration (GSA), the American people – instead of current fragmented planning, especially for the long-term resiliency of the Mall.

Finally, we urged the Commissioners to recognize that this Smithsonian project represents a crucial turning point in Mall planning. We asked the Commissioners to assert their official mandate “to advise the federal government on matters pertaining to the arts and national symbols, and to guide the architectural development of Washington, D.C.” We asked them to call on the President to empower a new McMillan-type Commission – over a century since the 1901-02 McMillan Commission ­– to create a new visionary plan for the Mall in the 21st century. Such a plan is urgently needed to provide guidance to the Smithsonian and all Mall stewards as they plan major infrastructure improvements to our nation’s civic stage in coming years.

Read our full testimony here.

The following are the facts, our observations, and our proposal:

  • Congress has charged Smithsonian with locating and building two new museums (Latino American and Women’s History) but the National Museum of African American History and Culture was constructed on the last museum site on the Mall. Smithsonian needs guidance to find acceptable sites on the Mall for these and future museums.
  • The Smithsonian’s plan to upgrade its aging Castle and Arts & Industries Building on the south side of the Mall – its Revitalizing the Historic Core (RoHC) plan ­– is just one limited solution to much bigger needs to revitalize aging facilities and infrastructure throughout the Mall.
  • In coming years, the GSA, the National Gallery of Art, USDA, and other Mall steward agencies also will be bringing plans before the Commission of Fine Arts and National Capital Planning Commission to upgrade their facilities with new sources of renewable energy and stormwater flood control.
  • Without a comprehensive plan for the Mall as a unified design, each of the Mall’s many steward develops and implements their own solutions. The result is piecemeal planning without any unifying approach to infrastructure upgrades.
  • Existing plans provide no relevant guidance. The National Park Service’s National Mall Plan is a maintenance plan only for lands under NPS jurisdiction, not the Smithsonian and other facilities.  NCPC’s Memorials and Museums Master Plan is a real estate plan that offers “empty” land but provides no guidance to situate new museums within the larger context of the Mall’s historic design, narrative of American history, and role as civic stage. NCPC’s “America’s Civic Stage” proposal looks only at Pennsylvania Avenue. DC and Federal agencies studying stormwater flooding on the Mall concluded their 2020 report with no action plan.
  • Now more than ever, to avoid piecemeal, uncoordinated infrastructure projects that could threaten the historic integrity of the National Mall, a new comprehensive and visionary Mall planning is needed. A 3rd Century Mall Plan can advance the brilliant L’Enfant (1st Century Mall) and McMillan (2nd Century Mall) plans for the Mall in the 21st
  • The President must take the lead to create the 3rd Century Mall plan and create a lasting legacy for the nation as we celebrate in 2026 the 250th anniversary of our founding.