Tightening rules on the Mall leave fests in peril

February 26

Tightening of National Park Service restrictions on the use of the Mall for festivals and other activities potentially threatens the annual summer Smithsonian Folklife Festival, according to Smithsonian officials.

Though the festival will still be held on the Mall this year, in a letter this month to the National Park Service obtained by The Washington Post, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough recounted years-long Smithsonian efforts to minimize the festival’s impact on the Mall, but raised concerns about its viability there in the future.

“We recognize that the National Mall is not only a national landscape, but also widely regarded as a gathering place for free expression. The challenge for the future is to balance the use of the Mall for democratic expression while maintaining its appearance,” the Feb. 6 letter reads.

“We are disappointed to learn that the final plans for the Mall incorporate too few of the accommodations that had been discussed for us to stage future Folklife Festivals in any form that would be recognizable to our patrons, fundamentally changing the character of this uniquely American Festival,” it goes on to say.

The new restrictions are in place following major rehabilitation work the Park Service has been performing on the Mall and surrounding areas in recent years, sometimes putting the maintenance and beautification of “America’s Front Yard” in conflict with its role as a gathering place for national celebrations and free speech gatherings.

Following the approval of a new plan for the Mall in 2010, upgrades in recent years include restoration of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, repair of the Tidal Basin seawall by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and restoration of the D.C. War Memorial.

In the wake of massive crowds for President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, Ken Salazar, then Secretary of the Interior, issued an order re-enforcing the Mall’s use for a variety of activities but expressing concern about “the extreme levels of use” the area endures, particularly on the Mall between Third and 14th streets.

“In the interest of protecting the Park, regulations allow the NPS to impose reasonable restrictions upon the use of temporary structures,” the order reads.

First held in 1967, the Folklife Festival operates between Seventh and 14th Streets, and has its center stage in the main Mall area. The Smithsonian alternately uses the Jefferson Drive side of the Mall and the Madison Drive side for other tents, staging and equipment, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

“We’re meeting with park service staff, we’re looking at the amount of hard space and looking at regulations,” said Smithsonian Undersecretary Richard Kurin. “I think plans allow for re-turfing parts of the Mall. You have events at football stadiums all the time. There are concerts then there’s a hockey game and a rodeo.”

He calls the Mall symbolically powerful and said “we would hope that some accommodation could be worked out so that the festival and other activities could take place out there, and still make the Mall look good.”

Carole Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Park Service called the new rules “very scientific in terms of giving the grass a chance to rest.”

After this year’s festival, the Park Service will begin the next phase of its restoration, putting the fate of the festival for 2015 and beyond in question.

“We’re trying to find a solution. The Folklife Festival is really popular. We know that. We want to work with them. We work with all permittees to do what we can to accommodate them while at the same time protecting the grass for the 25 million visitors we have every year,” said Johnson.

In January, organizers of the National Book Festival announced that after a dozen years on the Mall, they would move to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center because of the tighter restrictions. The National Council of Negro Women’s Web site cites the Mall renovation as the reason for not hosting its traditional Black Family Reunion Celebration this year.

Caroline L. Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, a private partner of the park service in trying to improve and restore the Mall, said hundreds of events and softball games are still permitted to use the Mall and are enjoying the improved turf.

“Honestly, I think the plan is working. You have to put rules in place so that it can be preserved one way or the other,” she said. The book festival’s relocation, she said, provided both a better event and respite for the Mall’s turf.

“I think their solution of going to the convention center was a win-win, sort of for them and for the turf,” she said.

Albert Small is a donor to the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the National Gallery of Art and is on the board for the Library of Congress. As a donor to institutions that bring visitors to the Mall, he says he’s concerned about the tightened restrictions.

“The Mall has been there for 200 years,” Small says. “It’s for the people. Its not just for grass. It doesn’t do any good if you can’t use it for more than just looking at it.”

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