Participating in the Public Process
The National Mall Coalition works diligently to protect and advance the visionary planning legacy of the 1791 L’Enfant Plan and 1901-2 McMillan Plan by participating in the federally mandated historic preservation public consultation process for proposed changes to the National Mall. These changes include proposals for new museums, monuments, renovations of existing buildings and landscapes, and master plans such as those by the National Park Service and the Smithsonian. In addition, we have testified before Congress, published letters and opinion pieces in The Washington Post and The New York Times, been interviewed on national and local radio and television, and been quoted in the media on a number of controversial proposals.
In commenting on projects, the National Mall Coalition focuses attention on what we believe are key Mall preservation questions: Does the proposed project or plan protect and advance the legacy and planning principles — including active public use of the open space — embodied in the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans? If not, how can it be revised and improved to preserve the integrity of that brilliant legacy and the ever-evolving needs of the American public?
Summary and Comments on Some Recent Mall Projects
Learn below about the following projects and read our written comments to the federal and DC review agencies:
- Constitution Gardens Rehabilitation
- Smithsonian’s South Mall Campus Master Plan
- Eisenhower Memorial
- National Park Service’s National Mall Plan
- Kennedy Center Expansion Plan
- The Height Act
- World War II Memorial
How does the public participation process work? Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and to involve the public in decision making. (Learn more about the law and public process at the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation website; the ACHP played an important role during the World War II Memorial controversy, as described below)
Because public comment is an important part of the consultation process, the Coalition encourages others to learn about the issues and make their voices heard. Unfortunately, as these projects described below reveal, the public is too often left out of the earliest stages of project development when government planners make key planning and design decisions, rendering public comment futile.
Constitution Gardens Rehabilitation
The National Park Service in partnership with its fundraising partner Trust for the National Mall proposes to rehabilitate the 1970s-era lake and naturalistic landscape at Constitution Gardens north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Section 106 public consultation for the Rehabilitation was initiated in 2014. Renovation of this isolated, little utilized, and run-down part of the Mall was proposed in the National Park Service’s 2010 National Mall Plan (see below). In 2011-2012 the Trust held a design competition and chose a preferred design that included upgrades and modifications to the design, purpose, and function of this area. The design proposes the addition, at the east end of the lake, of a new structure to house a restaurant, visitors center, and ranger station.
While we support rehabilitation of this area, the National Mall Coalition is concerned that treating this area as a separate “park” instead of an integral part of the Mall’s unified design and symbolism could contribute to the further loss of the Mall’s integrity. The Constitution Gardens area, located on landfill in what was originally the Potomac River, was envisioned by the 1902 McMillan Commission Plan as a tree-covered landscape framing the Lincoln Memorial setting. But in the 1940s this area was occupied by World War II government buildings. When these “tempos” were removed in the 1970s, a new design was proposed to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial. That design is the basis of today’s Constitution Gardens. Click here and here to read our two-part comments during the roll-out of the Section 106 process in 2014.
Smithsonian’s South Mall Campus Master Plan
The Smithsonian’s South Mall Campus Master Plan, made public in December 2014, proposes changes to the Smithsonian gardens and museums, including the “Castle,” on the south side of the Mall. Read our blog posting about the project here. In our written comments to the Smithsonian, we state two main concerns: This area of the Mall should not be treated as a separate “campus” but should fit within the larger legacy of visionary planning for the National Mall as a unified whole; and, there has been a lack, so far, of any open and public dialogue of other design options besides the Smithsonian’s “preferred alternative.” Click here to read our full comments.
We oppose wholesale destruction and redesign of the Haupt Garden that is cherished by many visitors as an island of beauty, calm, and contemplation in the midst of the bustling Mall and surrounding city.
The proposed Eisenhower Memorial has been in development since 2006 for a 4-acre site on Maryland Avenue, near the foot of Capitol Hill, just south of the Air & Space Museum. The controversial design by renowned architect Frank Gehry calls for an open-air room defined by 80-foot-high columns and metallic screens bearing images of a Kansas landscape and, at ground level, stone sculptures and bronze figures of Eisenhower as a child and an adult in a park-like setting. While the revised concept won acceptance in 2014 by federal review agencies including the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, the Eisenhower family and members of the public continue to call for a new or revised design to better honor the Eisenhower legacy and to protect the sensitive Maryland Avenue site.
The National Mall Coalition has criticized the Memorial design’s desecration of the historic L’Enfant and McMillan concept for Maryland Avenue as a broad 160-foot wide avenue and vista and mirror image of Pennsylvania Avenue north of the Mall. This design will close off this crucial section of Maryland Avenue with an “urban park” and 80-foot columns that are set within L’Enfant’s 160-foot right-of-way. We, along with other organizations and art critics, have urged the federal and DC preservation agencies to call for modifications to protect the historic planning principles, most recently in comments to the DC Historic Preservation Office. In response to the controversial design and Eisenhower family opposition, Congress has withheld funding for the Memorial, including in the 2017 budget. Learn more here.
National Park Service’s National Mall Plan
As grateful as the National Mall Coalition is that the National Park Service completed its “National Mall Plan” in 2010, we should be clear that this plan falls short of what we need if the Mall is in fact to continue to fulfill its role and its promise in American life today. Different from the historic L’Enfant and McMillan Plans that have guided comprehensive growth for the entire Mall, this is a “concept” plan or wish list for improvements to individual areas of the Mall as illustrated on the report cover. As the National Capital Planning Commission Staff report states, this Plan focuses solely on maintenance and management of lands within the Park Service’s domain.
What should a true plan for the Mall address?
- What are the Mall’s boundaries? They are most assuredly broader than Park Service lands. What of the National Gallery? The Smithsonian museums? The Capitol grounds? The Congressional Research Service concluded in 2003 that the Mall has never been defined. But that same year Congress amended the Commemorative Works Act and defined the Mall as the great cross-axis from the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial and White House to Jefferson Memorial. Clearly, any National Mall Plan worthy of that name must include the whole Mall and all constituencies.
- The Plan asserts that the Mall is a completed work of civic art. But is it? Congress imposed a moratorium but meantime has approved the African American Museum, while the National Park Service, despite the moratorium, proposes two new visitors centers, at the Washington Monument and at Constitution Gardens. To say the Mall is complete strikes us as essentially saying American history has come to a halt, and none of us believe that. We have a rich history, we will continue to have a rich history as long as America is the land of promise and accomplishment. More of our story could and should be told. Our Coalition has proposed before, and we do so again, that Congress can expand the boundaries of the Mall to embrace new monuments, new museums, and new or relocated activities such as the National Book Festival and Solar Decathlon.
- The Mall is an economic engine for the region, drawing an estimated 25 million visitors a year who stay throughout the metropolitan area and avail themselves of local services. How can the Mall be more fully integrated into the fabric of the District and the region?
- Perhaps most challenging is the question of how the various agencies and entities on the Mall can work together to ensure consistent and compatible planning and development. Surely it’s not asking too much to want some form of unified Mall governing entity and a comprehensive vision, in the tradition of the 1791 L’Enfant Plan and 1902 McMillan Plan, that guides all future planning and development.
- Our Coalition felt a sense of optimism in 2005 during the Senate hearing that launched this Mall planning process – both because the Coalition was invited to testify and because of what was said. Chairman Craig Thomas spoke of the need for a 3rd century Mall plan, and stated his intention to create a commission like the McMillan Commission of a century ago. Senator Daniel Akaka said it was important to get beyond piecemeal planning to address “the complete vision of what the Mall could be, and what it should be.” He spoke enthusiastically about the possibilities of Mall expansion, maybe down South Capitol. Senator (and later Secretary of Interior) Ken Salazar spoke of the problem of fragmented management and the need for some kind of Mall entity to coordinate Mall planning and management. Asked to respond, John Parsons of the National Park Service, David Childs, then chair of the Commission of Fine Arts, and John Cogbill, then chair of the NCPC spoke of how they would work together and involve the most talented, visionary designers to create the new McMillan Plan for the 21st century. Well, that didn’t happen.
- Our Coalition has long advocated the need for a comprehensive, forward-looking plan to speak to these very basic questions outlined above, and in so doing to provide the vision that in our nation’s earlier history was derived from L’Enfant’s plan and later from the McMillan Plan. We will redouble our efforts to create that visionary plan, for this needs to be done if we are to realize the Mall’s promise in American life in our 3rd century.
Click here to read our comments to NPS about the limitations of the Plan and the public consultation process.
Kennedy Center Expansion Plan
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which is a memorial to President Kennedy as well as a performing arts venue, has developed plans to add three new buildings to provide additional space for rehearsal, classrooms, lecture halls, and offices, starting in 2015. While the Center is not technically part of the National Mall, it is an important part of the collection of Presidential memorials in the nation’s capital. For that reason, and because we have proposed that in the future the Kennedy Center could become part of Mall expansion, the National Mall Coalition takes an active interest in this plan. In comments to the Kennedy Center and written testimony to the National Capital Planning Commission, we stated our concern about the proposed floating pavilion component. We also urged the Center to take another look at a more architecturally compatible and elegant proposal by architect Arthur Cotton Moore to create a grand staircase connection from this great temple structure to the Potomac River waterfront. Click here to read our comments.
In May 2015, the Kennedy Center scaled back its plan to remove the floating pavilion element. Read the news story here: http://districtsource.com/2015/05/no-more-floating-pavilion-in-kennedy-center-expansion-plans/
The Height Act
In 2013, the District of Columbia Government and federal National Capital Planning Commission proposed changes to the 1910 Height Act that restricts the height of buildings in the nation’s capital. The National Mall Coalition strongly opposes changes to the Height Act and submitted comments to both entities stating our concern that changes to height limits that would damage the character of the National Mall and other capital historic landmarks, parks and open spaces, major avenues, and other special places that form an essential part of the Capital city. The Height Act together with the historic L’Enfant and McMillan Plans for Washington, D.C. are a primary reason the planning of the Nation’s Capital has been so successful. Click here to read our comments to the National Capital Planning Commission. Click here to read our comments to DC’s Office of Planning.
World War II Memorial
The National Mall Coalition was established as a nonprofit citizens group in 2000 directly in response to controversy over the World War II Memorial, which included an official reprimand by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation of the National Park Service for its failure to follow preservation laws and policies, as described below.
Opposition to the WWII Memorial began in 1997 and was originally led by members of Congress as well as major media sources, art critics, and members of the public. Criticism focused primarily on the inappropriateness of the site: the oval shaped Rainbow Pool punctuating the eastern end of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool was the wrong location for a new major monument. It would destroy the simplicity of the Capitol to Washington Monument to Lincoln Memorial design and vista and interpose a 20th century war into the symbolism of American founding ideals. Moreover, the public had been shut out of the site selection process, in violation of the Historic Preservation Act and environmental policy laws.
Members of Congress deferred to a revised design in 1998 but there was continued strong public opposition. In 2000, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation stepped into the review process and conducted a public hearing that was broadcast on C-Span television. Over 100 members of the public testified, most of them against the site and/or memorial design. In its follow-up letter to the National Park Service, which was the sponsor of the Memorial, the Council stated that the proposed Memorial was “incompatible with the historical site.” The Council was sharply critical of the process that excluded the Council as well as public input: “The NPS did not consult with the Council on either site selection or the design competition…Unfortunately, the agencies that oversee planning and design issues within the District of Columbia rarely extend public involvement to a national scale.”
That official reprimand was the basis for the lawsuit brought against the NPS, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the DC Preservation League, and the National Mall Coalition. Sadly, rather than allow the legal process to help find a more appropriate solution, Congress mandated that “notwithstanding any provision of law” the Memorial design shall be built. The Memorial was dedicated in 2004.