For Starters, Mall Visitors Just Want More Bathrooms

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Goose droppings muck up the reflecting pools on the Mall. Heaps of orange dirt make a patchwork quilt of the gravel pathways. Rats run rampant. Thousands of tent stakes pierce the underground irrigation system and flood the grassy knolls.

The Mall has lost its luster, and the National Park Service is inviting the public to offer its unvarnished criticisms.

About 100 people showed up yesterday at a symposium on the Mall held in downtown Washington, part of a massive makeover for the grassy expanse bounded by the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and the Jefferson Memorial. Public officials, a retiree in a velour track suit, a Disney planner and others answered the call, enumerating a laundry list of problems and irritations.

A century has passed since the character and design of the city's public space were last considered, 30 years since the last touch-up. The Mall is a place where visitors exercise their First Amendment rights in protest, soak in the grandeur of monuments to the nation's great leaders, pay their respects at memorials to fallen soldiers or simply take a stroll.

If only they could easily find a place to relieve themselves.

"Restrooms," or the lack thereof, is the No. 1 complaint fielded by Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, after a million people come to marvel at the pastel blossoms. Apart from portable toilets sometimes brought out for special events, fewer than 100 public restrooms are located on the 600 acres of the Mall, which draws 25 million people a year.

And that's just for starters. Fond memories of the trees, Tidal Basin and monuments are adulterated by equally vivid images of the inconvenience of it all: It's hard finding adequate parking, and options are, at best, limited for transportation or a morsel of food that is "more than a hot dog," Mayhew said.

But, as it turns out, restrooms can be the most difficult issue to resolve -- one described as "highly controversial" by Susan Spain, the Park Service's project executive for the Mall makeover.

That's because the Mall, often called the nation's front lawn, is not just any park. Officials have to balance needs with a sensitivity reserved for hallowed ground.

"If you're going to bring people to a location, you have to accommodate their human needs," Spain allowed.

There was great debate over a plan to include restrooms in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial when it opened in 1943, she added.

Several critics who spoke at the symposium said there are many other ways in which the Mall falls short.

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