Plan to “Respectfully Rehabilitate” National Mall Moves Forward

Last week, the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC) gave its preliminary consent for the National Park Service’s preferred alternative plan for the National Mall, a “comprehensive framework plan” that has undergone a rigorous process of public comment. According to the Park Service, the $700 million plan has received thousands of comments to date. Nancy Witherell, historic preservation lead for the NCPC, argued that the National Park Service’s plan offers “respectful rehabilitation.”

While there is a rich legacy of planning that still guides future development of the National Mall, including the original L’Enfant and McMillan plans, SOM plans leading up to the bicentennial, and the recent OLIN design plans for the Washington Monument, the National Park Service’s new comprehensive framework plan creates a path for moving forward with critical, postponed maintenance work (up to $400 million worth) and future enhancements designed to make the Mall both more sustainable and accessible.

Witherell outlined the major components of the Park Service’s new framework plan:

1) Improve resource conditions
2) Prepare Mall for intensive use
3) Provide desired experiences
4) Address user capacity
5) Provide for physical needs, conveniences, and enjoyment.

Improve resource conditions: This will establish a new “standard quality” across the National Mall, including standards for maintenance and care. Some areas of the Mall are irrigated; others aren’t. There are high levels of use (some 30 million visitors per year), so plans must address both high-usage and low-usage areas in stages.

“Gravel paths, whether you love or hate them, need to be part of the discussion. Perhaps this includes discussion on some sort of paved surface over areas of the grass panels?”

Witherell noted that grass panels on either side of the reflecting pool were heavily worn, sea walls have been degraded, and elm trees are damaged from compacted soils. “Significant infrastructure improvements are needed.”

Prepare for intensive use: The National Mall must accomodate First Amendment marches, demonstrations, and celebrations. Some see the current placement of the reflecting pool as an obstacle in these events. “The reflecting pool currently disperses crowds. For some, it’s a barrier. There are also no bathrooms nearby.”

Across the Mall’s long grass panels, “we examined the damage and found that short events aren’t bad, the mall can recover. However, multi-day events requiring the use of tents, generators, can do lasting damage to the turf.”

Provide desired experience: This includes entertainment, social experiences, educational events. The plan includes replacing the Sylvan Theatre with a more flexible event space. The east pond in Constitution Gardens will also be turned into a destination — like the “National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.” The model is the “pleasure gardens of Europe.”

Parts of this component of the plan include moving the Lockkeeper’s house further into the landscape (away from the road), and adding in more benches and sitting areas.

Additionally, soils will be re-engineered in spots so they are more resilient for sports.

Address user capacity and balance stewardship and access: The National Park Service hopes to expand bike plans throughout the National Mall so cyclists’ needs can be better met.

Provide for physical needs, conveniences, and enjoyment: Food service is currently dispersed throughout the Mall. Restrooms will be linked to some food kiosks to the north of the National Air & Space Museum. New way-finding and signage programs, including clearer signs at the entrance of the Mall Metro station, will be developed.

Proposed Projects: The plan calls for a range of new projects, including:

  • Re-development of the reflecting pool in Union Square: An international design competition will help generate proposals for the Capitol reflecting pool. The new plan may “retain water, but also make use of hardscape. Perhaps the water is transformable — there could be still / active water elements?”
  • New restroom facilities, particularly for the Union Square area.
  • New space for event trailers so they are kept off the main grass panels.
  • Replacing the Sylvan Theatre with a new multi-use facility.
  • Bike rentals / bike storage infrastructure and expanded paths.
  • Separate bike and pedestrian paths.
  • Canoe / kayak parking along the waterfront.
  • Conservation Zoning Plans: There will be clear areas prioritized as conservation zones. People will be directed out of those areas.
  • Implementation of 2003 OLIN replanting scheme for the Washington Monument grounds: Plans will finally move forward and incorporate the site design for the new National Museum for African American History.
  • Improved circulation: The transportation system will be designed more like public transit, using “optional interpretation, so we can plug-in options.” More bus through-lanes, including access for the D.C. Circulator, will be included, and tour buses will drop off groups in select locations, and then be asked to move off the Mall.  “We are also considering parking meters on the Mall to raise revenue and encourage increased public transit access to the Mall.”
  • Sustainable Resource Management: HOK and other leading sustainability consultants are sampling turf soil and grasses to determine the best way to make the grounds more sustainable and resilient and protect vegetation. The Sustainable Sites Initiative was highlighted as a critical tool for ensuring the Mall’s future sustainability.

Witherell said the Washington, D.C. government is deeply involved in the plan implementation. As one NCPC member noted, Washington D.C. is responsible for the Metro system, permits, and the surrounding neighborhoods, which feed into the National Mall area.

Public Comments:

Nancy Somerville, Honorary ASLA, CEO of ASLA, was first up to speak in the public comments component of the hearing. Somerville said ASLA fully supports the National Park Service’s preferred alternative plan, and added that there “hasn’t been a renovation of the mall in 30 years. It’s fallen into disrepair despite the involvement of the best designers and the work of the park service.”

Somerville argued that restoring adequate funding and creating a true vision for the Mall were critical to its future sustainability. “Repairs shouldn’t be piecemeal. There needs to be a commitment to sustainability, and soil and turf issues need to be addressed.” Additionally, there must be close cooperation among all the government organizations involved. “Planning can’t be done in isolation.” She promoted the redesign of the Union Square area and its connection with the reflecting pool, calling for an international design competition to generate new proposals.

ASLA agrees with the National Park Service’s many initiatives, but opposes the use of interpretive centers across the Mall, instead arguing for a centralized visitor’s center on the mall. Additionally, signage needs to be well-thought out and consider a range of users. “Signage plans also need to be not only 20th century, but also 21st century.” 

Lastly, while there is discussion about paving over the gravel paths, retaining the historic gravel, which provides a “soft walkway” that encourages a “relaxed stroll,” should be considered. In terms of the all the paths throughout the Mall, “one size doesn’t fit all.” Learn more about ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel convened to discuss the National Mall.

A range of organizations also gave their support, including the D.C. Historic Preservation League, Downtown Washington, D.C. BID, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and the Trust for the National Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall is also a “strong supporter” of the National Mall plan but says a “visionary plan, a concept plan, for mall expansion” is still needed.

One Council Member argued that D.C.’s innovative bike sharing scheme (the first in the U.S.) should be better incorporated into National Mall bike infrastructure plans. D.C.’s bike sharing program will soon expand to 1,000 bikes across the city, and a similar, compatible system will develop in Arlington, Virgina, across the river from the National Mall. “We should have a seamless experience for users.” Given D.C.’s bike share units are mobile and solar-powered, they can also be moved in as facilities during peak times or for certain events. “The National Mall can then have more bike tours.”

The comments period on the preferred alternative National Mall plan is open until March 18, 2010. Send your ideas to the National Park Service.

Image credit: National Park Service National Mall Preferred Plan. Conservation Zones Map

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