A Tribute to National Mall Coalition Board Member George H.F. Oberlander

We in the National Mall Coalition mourn the death on December 25, 2023 of George Oberlander, long-time Board member and Vice Chair, and good friend.

George was the Coalition’s urban planning expert. I firmly believe we couldn’t have done what we did, in the way we did it, without his unique contribution: his public spiritedness, his deep planning knowledge, and his passion for the mission of the National Mall Coalition to advance thoughtful, long-range planning for the Mall in its third century.

George joined the Coalition a few years after he retired from the National Capital Planning Commission. What a joy that was to our volunteer group of architects, art historians, preservationists and citizens. George had spent 31 years overseeing planning in Washington and the Mall. He knew the issues, and the challenges. So we were honored that he saw the Coalition as a way for him to continue to contribute.

Importantly, he was our dose of practical realism when it came to how the planning process in DC works. He knew Washington’s historic urban design plans. He knew the laws governing planning in the capital. He knew the planning process. And he knew the players – from Congress to the assortment of government entities including Smithsonian and National Park Service – all with their own ideas of how they could “improve” the Mall.

George Oberlander
George Oberlander

On days we drove downtown together to attend a public meeting or testify before NCPC or the Commission of Fine Arts, he’d fill me in on DC’s planning history. How Home Rule changed planning in the capital. Congressional oversight – or lack thereof. The proposed “inner beltway” and Three Sisters Bridge debate. And we’d commiserate on the controversy that first brought us together – the World War II Memorial in the late 90s while he was still at NCPC and I was working with the Committee of 100 and DC Preservation league to oppose the memorial’s location and design. Even NCPC, by late in the review process, was having second thoughts about the memorial’s approval.

George was more than our planning expert. He was a moral anchor. He would help us see all sides in a controversy and advise the Coalition about ways to be effective in our advocacy. But that didn’t mean he toned down our opposition. Often, it meant the opposite. He firmly believed in holding responsible peoples’ feet to the fire when it came to protecting the brilliant planning legacy for the Mall and Washington.

George joined the Coalition in the aftermath of the WWII Memorial controversy – the controversy that was the impetus for creation of our nonprofit. The Mall in our view was under assault and the brilliant historic plans that created our majestic Mall needed a group speaking up for the public interest. I couldn’t help believing then, and I think my intuition then was confirmed in the last 20 years, that George ­– an immigrant, a refugee from political oppression – felt a deep commitment to what the Mall stands for: America’s highest ideals, and our struggles and sometimes successes and sometimes failures, to advance those founding principles.

The Coalition Board and I take comfort in believing that his 31 years guiding wise planning at the NCPC and effective advocacy for over 20 years at the Coalition helped make our beautiful capital and the Mall at its heart a more welcoming, lively, and well-planned stage for American democracy.




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