Testimony: Coalition Chair Feldman Addresses the National Capital Planning Commission on the Smithsonian South Mall Campus Historic Core Revitalization

Good morning, Chair White and Commissioners. I am Judy Scott Feldman, Chair of the nonprofit National Mall Coalition. The Coalition is dedicated to advancing comprehensive, visionary planning for the Mall to ensure the vitality of this historic national treasure for future generations. The Coalition has been participating in the historic preservation Section 106 public review for the Smithsonian’s South Mall plan since the original plan was rolled out in 2014.

The National Mall Coalition supports the Smithsonian’s now more modest efforts to revitalize the Smithsonian Castle and Arts & Industries Building. We would like to take this opportunity, however, to express our disappointment at a serious missed opportunity, and to ask this Commission to take action to remedy the unmet need. We stated our concerns first in January 2015 and reiterated them in June 2021 before the Commission of Fine Arts. That is, “The design concept, Smithsonian planning goals, and public materials fail to frame this project in the larger context of the entire National Mall, a historical and cultural resource of national importance, of which it is a part.”

The Mall has two urgent, unmet needs. One is flood mitigation. The other is creating clean, renewable energy sources for the museums and government buildings on and surrounding the Mall. Every one of the Mall area public buildings and gardens will be forced, in coming years, to confront, to one extent or another, both flood mitigation and clean energy upgrades. The Smithsonian plan could have been the opportunity to bring all Mall stewards together to create a comprehensive program for flood and clean energy needs.

Instead, the Smithsonian plan calls for new heating and cooling facilities to serve its buildings – and only some of them – and not the larger Mall ensemble. Its proposed floodwater cistern beneath the Castle takes no account of the existential threat of flooding across the entire Mall and Federal Triangle area. The Smithsonian will say it can only plan for Mall lands under its control. This is true, if uncreative and lacking in vision. Regrettably, no plan review authority, including this Planning Commission, has required the Smithsonian to take a comprehensive approach, or to insist on collaboration among Mall stewards. As a consequence, in coming years this Commission can expect to be asked to approve other piecemeal solutions for clean energy and flooding problems – by GSA, National Gallery of Art, USDA, and other Mall stewards – with all the associated threats to the integrity of the Mall.

The Coalition urges this Commission to act now to support measures to turn around the future, potentially devastating attack on the integrity of the Mall, and safeguard the national significance of the 1791 L’Enfant and 1901 McMillan Plans that are its blueprints.

The Coalition, founded in 2000, has advocated creation by Congress of a new McMillan-type commission to update the McMillan Plan for the 21st century. This Commission as well as other Mall stewards have opposed this idea. But the evidence to support a new commission and a new comprehensive plan is compelling. In 2005, the National Park Service, the Commission of Fine Arts, and this Commission assured Congress, and a true Mall champion, Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY), that they would work together on a new comprehensive plan for the entire Mall. Instead, the Park Service released in 2010 only a maintenance plan, limited in scope to lands under Park Service control. That plan included no solutions to the then-well-known Mall flooding problem. Nor did it propose Mall-wide clean energy solutions.

From 2018 to 2020, the DC Silver Jackets, an interagency flood response team – which includes Park Service, Smithsonian, and this Commission – studied the Federal Triangle and Mall stormwater flooding problem. The preferred solution selected by the DC and federal agencies after three years of study was to construct a pumping station at 14th and Constitution Avenue. Many of us are scratching our heads. How can this be a solution when it would pump toxic stormwater runoff directly into the Tidal Basin – and likely make the existing flooding problem at the Tidal Basin even worse. Where will the floodwater go?

This Commission’s new Pennsylvania Avenue proposal, as useful as it may be to inspire creative thinking about the future, seems to ignore altogether the most urgent planning challenges of our time: flooding and clean energy.

Certain conclusions are hard to deny. Each agency plans for its own needs, not for the good of the Mall as a whole. When agencies do try to work together to agree on a more comprehensive solution, they end up either falling back on agency-by-agency priorities, or compromising on solutions that are not solutions at all. Or they ignore the problems altogether.

But ignoring the problems is not a solution for the National Mall. The Coalition urges this Commission to support creation of a McMillan-type commission that can update the 120-year-old McMillan plan to solve the flooding and clean energy problems, and also to provide new sites for the inevitable future museums and memorials.

The Coalition also asks this Commission to give the Coalition an opportunity, during an upcoming Commission meeting, to brief this Commission on our National Mall Underground concept. We would like to explain the concept fully, take comments and questions, and provide answers.

The Underground could solve both the flooding and clean energy needs in one massive infrastructure facility. When the National Mall Coalition presented the concept to this Commission in 2013, there was considerable enthusiasm by both federal and DC commission members. But in 2021, to our surprise, the concept was rejected outright by this Commission, the Smithsonian, and the National Park Service, in letters these agencies sent to Congress in response to Congressional inquiry. Only the Commission of Fine Arts invited us to present the Underground to them, which we did last October. They told Congress they thought the project deserved further review.

The Coalition is alarmed at the ongoing flood threat to our national museums and monuments, and to the historical integrity of this beloved Stage for American Democracy, and urges Commission action to use its planning authority to ask Congress to take corrective action.

The Coalition welcomes the opportunity to provide our expertise in any such action.

For the National Mall Coalition:

Judy Scott Feldman, PhD
Chair, National Mall Coalition
9507 Overlea Drive
Rockville, MD 20850 jfeldman@nationalmallcoalition.org /301-340-3938