Reimagining a Mall That Has Outgrown Itself
Friday, December 9, 2005
The architects and designers were giddy with the possibilities: They talked about giant sculptural bridges, soaring waterfront museums, inland canals, water taxis and monuments that would forever change the nation's capital.
"This is something that only happens every century or so. This is really a once-in-lifetime opportunity," said Rick Harlan Schneider, an architect who tipped his head back and imagined what it would be like to help redesign the nation's front yard, the Mall.
With a glut of memorials, monuments and museums waiting to be built, and other champions for other causes in the wings, the question of whether the Mall should be considered "a finished piece of civic art" gained new momentum this week during a meeting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Schneider is one of a growing number of planners whose solution is rethinking the Mall itself, reconfiguring and expanding the space, the way a Senate commission did about 100 years ago when the Lincoln Memorial was built on swampland that became the western axis of one of the nation's premier public spaces.
"Ultimately, the Mall is not a collection of museums and memorials. That's not what the Mall was intended to be. It's a living, lively place, and it can keep changing," said Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, the group that has spent the past two years championing another move as bold as the one involving the Lincoln Memorial.
Feldman's plan to expand the Mall to include East Potomac Park is an attempt to solve the problem of memorial clutter by creating more space that would be considered prime Mall real estate. It would be big enough to include more of the strolling, biking and ballgames that get crowded out by museums while making room for more monuments.
Her group hosted the forum this week that featured the ideas of six architects. They created plans for marinas, water taxis, shopping, restaurants, museums and fantastical bridges. One design would move the Supreme Court to East Potomac Park, creating a triangle, with the Capitol and the White House, to represent the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government.
The mood at the lecture was electric, with architects in black turtlenecks and historians in tailored suits popping from their chairs with ideas. It was supposed to last an hour, but people stayed for more than two, talking long after the gallery staff had stacked the chairs and dimmed the stage lights.
The meeting drew federal planners faced with the quandary daily when they receive proposals for memorials and museums that have been approved by Congress despite less space where they could go.
"The monuments and memorials are going to keep coming. Something's got to happen," said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, who came to listen but took no official position on the plans.
Representatives from the National Capital Planning Commission also attended, but they are firmly holding to their solution: the "Legacy plan" and the Memorials and Museums Master Plan, which names 100 spaces approved for memorials in pocket parks and on forgotten plots, to democratize and spread monuments. The commission is also working with city officials on turning the South Capitol Street corridor into a Mall-like park next to the proposed baseball stadium.
"We consider the Mall a finished work of civic art," John V. Cogbill III, the National Capital Planning Commission chairman, repeats often at meetings of the commission, where groups constantly clamor for more space.
In most cases, groups sponsoring memorials feel slighted or disrespected when offered a spot that is not on the Mall. That's why Feldman says that the Mall simply needs to grow, to simply make that coveted space a little larger.
But Patricia E. Gallagher, executive director of the commission, said that simply annexing East Potomac Park, a waterfront park with a golf course, children's parks and a steady population of joggers and cyclists, isn't an easy answer. That space is known as "the people's park."
"Taking over the recreational uses would be very, very controversial. That park is treasured for recreational purposes," Gallagher said.
At the Corcoran meeting, one man in the audience chimed in with similar thoughts. "I run that park about once a month. There are bikers; it's a place where people go," he said.
But Feldman and the designers said they want to integrate recreation into their plans. They talked about swimming areas, a national skateboard park, a national putt-putt course, walkways, water canals and bike paths.
For those who think the plan is outrageous and unreasonable, Feldman points to a quote from a 1902 park commission report to the Senate, before the Mall was expanded toward the Lincoln Memorial:
"The demand for new public buildings and memorials has reached an acute stage. There has been hesitation and embarrassment in locating them because of the uncertainty in securing appropriate sites."