January 17

Judy Scott Feldman is the founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

Who decides what the Mall is for? If even the family-friendly, educational, inspirational and just plain fun National Book Festival can be turned away, what’s left? The National Park Service announced Jan. 8 that the festival would not return to the Mall because the festival sponsors cannot satisfy new Park Service regulations to protect the grass. Will the Mall become a “national park,” where visitors of the future will view the monuments and grass, as at Yellowstone, through the windows of a tour bus?

The Park Service manages the Mall’s grassy open space, though not the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art or other public buildings. To this agency, founded in 1916 to protect our nation’s natural and historic resources, the health of natural resources such as grass seems to come first and public use second.

Its 2010 National Mall Plan is setting new limits on public use. The Smithsonian each year struggles to satisfy permit requirements for its Folklife Festival. The Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the Energy Department and top universities, packed up and left. Now even the Library of Congress, which sponsors the book festival, can’t meet the strict rules — and steep costs — intended to keep the grass green.

No one is arguing against maintaining the grass. But what about reasonable public use? Who’s standing up for the public? How do we create a fair balance when even our universities and cultural institutions can’t seem to meet the Park Service’s new rules?

The fundamental issue is the lack of a comprehensive plan that goes beyond the 2010 maintenance plan and takes into account the interests of the historical institutions and public visitors that use the Mall. Management agencies should not dictate the purpose and meaning of the Mall.

The Mall, which runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, is not a national park and was never intended to be. From 1791, when President George Washington enlisted Pierre L’Enfant to plan the capital, the Mall was conceived to symbolize in public architecture and open space our country’s founding principles. L’Enfant’s plan described itas a “place of general resort” for the enjoyment of the people. After a century of neglect, the 1902 McMillan Plan restored L’Enfant’s concept to an open grassy expanse framed by trees and museums. That plan set the stage, so to speak, for the Mall’s use today — as a treasured public space for activities from Fourth of July fireworks and inaugurations to cultural events such as the book and folklife festivals.

It is not only buildings such as the Smithsonian and National Gallery that are part of the Mall. The public programs they and other surrounding institutions promote are also a crucial component of that high purpose.

For almost a decade, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall has urged Congress to create an independent McMillan-type commission to provide an updated, unified plan for this nationally significant landscape. The commission, composed of civic and cultural leaders, would invite all parties to the table and include a strong voice for the public.

What can an independent commission accomplish that existing Mall managing agencies can’t? The commission can think outside jurisdictional boundaries and plan across them. The commission, for example, can solve the need for new locations for museums and public events by expanding the Mall’s overall boundaries, as the McMillan Plan did more than a century ago when it extended the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. A new plan could include the underutilized waterfront tracts of federal land in East and West Potomac Park. It could also look to create parking, dining and restroom facilities under the Mall.

We need to act before we lose, restriction by restriction, the vitality that gives the Mall so much of its meaning in our democracy.