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Correction to This Article
A Sept. 15 article incorrectly said that two new memorials on the Mall were approved after the National Capital Planning Commission called in 2001 for a "Reserve" area including the Mall to be off-limits to new construction. The commission approved the Constitution Gardens site for the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in 1988 and approved the Tidal Basin site for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 1999.
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Mall's Finite Space Holds Infinite Dreams

These plans come from a December 2001 document from the NCPC, "Memorials and Museums Master Plan," that outlined how construction away from the Mall could be achieved. "No undeveloped sites for major new museums within the area between 3rd and 14th Streets remain," the report asserted, somewhat debatably. "Nevertheless, as evidenced by current proposals, efforts to establish new storehouses of our nation's treasures abound."

The plan says there are enough ceremonial spaces -- and they have suggested 100 -- to fit all memorial needs over the next 50 years.

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Location, Location, Location
With space running out, planners are attempting to divert new memorials and monuments to sites far from the Mall.

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To the eye, there is plenty of land. The Indian Museum has filled 4.25 acres, and there are equivalent plots all over Washington. Of course, some of the open areas are dedicated to baseball and other sports, and others just for natural beauty.

But the Mall, the expansive lane of Washington's brick and marble symbols, is a mainstay in people's vision, and has played a prominent role since planner Pierre L'Enfant mapped out the city for George Washington. The L'Enfant plan dates from 1791 and laid out ceremonial spaces, fountains and memorials, and the location for Congress and the White House. It was updated and expanded by the McMillan Plan in 1901, which restored the uninterrupted sweep of the Mall, then lanced by a railroad station. It created the park as seen today and suggested cornerstones such as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.

Washingtonians have been tinkering ever since.

Political Tug of War

Some believe politics will always make room for additions to the Mall. "All it takes is for Congress to make one exception," says Judy Scott Feldman, the organizer of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a nonprofit group that opposed the building of the World War II Memorial, arguing that it disrupted the vista between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

Other stakeholders hold fast to the official view and don't want the Mall overbuilt. They have plenty of clout. The barons of federal lands include the Park Service (part of the U.S. Department of the Interior), the NCPC, the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Memorial Commission. They survey a vast realm, including 229 museums and memorials, jumping across the Potomac River into Virginia with Arlington National Cemetery and the Potomac shore along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Yet even within the power structure, there is disagreement about how untouchable the Mall is. Frederick Lindstrom, acting secretary of the Fine Arts Commission, says: "Cities are an organic, living entity. The Mall is the same way. It will continue to change and I don't know how you can make a blanket statement. I feel there is additional space on the Mall," he says.

History might be on the skeptics' side. After NCPC said in a 1966 formal survey that the Mall didn't need any other museums, the building kept going. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1974. The East Building of the National Gallery of Art opened in 1978. In the 1980s the Smithsonian needed space for two collections and solved the Mall squeeze by digging down. It decided to build the national museums of African art and Asian art underground in a space south of the Smithsonian Castle close to Independence Avenue. They opened in 1987. A space was found for the Holocaust Museum, which opened in 1993, on 14th Street NW, within what are now the Reserve boundaries.

There are already exceptions even to the most recent moratorium of last November. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center, a facility that will instruct visitors about the Vietnam War and will be close to the Wall itself, was approved by President Bush in November 2003. It will be constructed underground.

Since the Reserve has been designated, a number of memorials have been approved. One is the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which will be on four acres at the Tidal Basin on Independence Avenue. Another project is the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial, now in the fundraising stages. Its site is in Constitutional Gardens, also part of the Reserve.

Future Neighbors Uncertain

The African American museum, a $300 million project, is being planned by the Smithsonian with a target opening date of 2013. In its final report last year, the presidential commission studying its feasibility made it clear that the nearer the 350,000-square-foot structure was to the Mall, the better. Where it will end up, however, is anyone's guess.

One suggested site is on the Mall in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building. That would require a major conversion and, most likely, underground expansion. A second is also on the Mall, a trapezoid-like plot opposite the Washington Monument grounds. It is bounded by 14th and 15th streets NW and sits largely unoccupied between Constitution Avenue and Madison Drive. A third site is just outside the Reserve, down the street from the Holocaust Museum, short of the 14th Street Bridge. The last one is on Maine Avenue, technically in Area II. It is a concrete circle and non-working fountain called the 10th Street Overlook or Benjamin Banneker Park, dedicated to the self-taught African American mathematician who was part of the surveying team that laid out the capital.

Robert L. Wilkins is a Washington lawyer who served on the African American museum's presidential commission. He prefers the 15th and Constitution site because not only is it on the Mall, it is close to the National Museum of American History. "It is important symbolically for this museum to be in the right location. This history is at the centrality of American history," he says. With more than five acres of grass, the spot is large enough to accommodate a museum.


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