Makeover Of Mall Urged at Hearing

Youngsters walk along a mud path near the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool on the east end of the heavily used Mall.
Youngsters walk along a mud path near the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool on the east end of the heavily used Mall. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Mall is a national "disgrace," an overused, neglected and decrepit urban park in need of a total makeover that could cost $500 million, according to testimony at a congressional hearing yesterday.

The legendary venue, which serves as civic stage and America's front yard, lacks proper restrooms, shade and places to eat, witnesses said.

Its lakes and pools are dirty. Its grass is often trampled to dirt. And its walkways are cracked, patched, uneven and sometimes flooded when the nearby Potomac River is at high tide.

"We should all be ashamed" of what the average Mall visitor sees, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was one of the witnesses.

The testimony came at an oversight hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands to review plans for the Mall's future. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

The Mall, which is the centerpiece of the National Park Service's 650-acre National Mall and Memorial Parks, runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol and includes the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the National World War II Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

It is one of the most heavily used national parks in the country, each year attracting millions of visitors, thousands of public events and more than a dozen big demonstrations and holiday festivals.

This weekend, for example, tens of thousands of motorcyclists and other pilgrims are expected on the Mall to observe Memorial Day, six weeks after the end of the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Mall's poor condition has been evident for years, but only recently has an array of plans, programs and legislation been proposed to redress the situation.

"Thirty-four years ago, when I came to Washington, the Mall didn't look the way it looks today," one of the witnesses, John E. "Chip" Akridge, said after the hearing.

Akridge is chairman of the newly founded Trust for the National Mall, an organization that seeks to raise private funding for the Mall. About $600,000 was raised this month at the group's first fundraiser.

The Mall was once "a world-class space," he said. "Lady Bird Johnson was planting flowers. It was manicured. The place was monumental. It was the way you would expect a capital city of the world to look."

Akridge attributed its decline to a massive increase in usage and inadequate maintenance budgets.

Park Service spokesman Bill Line said in an interview, "If you had a large number of people walking through your front yard, it probably wouldn't look very nice, either."

Akridge testified that although the Park Service has done the best it can with limited resources, the Mall has accumulated about $350 million in deferred maintenance. It also needs about $100 million in building repairs and better food and restroom facilities, he said, and $50 million for improved educational programming. The Mall's budget this year was about $31 million.

"I don't know if any of you have been down to the Mall lately," he told the legislators. "It's a disgrace. It's in a state of disrepair. The Park Service cannot do it alone."

Margaret O'Dell, the new superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said the Park Service is drawing up a detailed, long-range plan for the Mall. In the short term, she said, there will soon be a new signage system as well as an effort "to do better with the resources that we have."

John V. Cogbill III, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, said his agency is drafting plans for the Mall and adjacent areas, as are the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the D.C. government and the Architect of the Capitol.

Judy Scott Feldman, president of the nonprofit National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said at the hearing that she lamented "the fragmented management and jurisdictions." She urged the creation of a congressionally chartered commission of distinguished figures to guide planning, much like the famed 1901-02 McMillan Commission.

"This is not a task just for government agencies," she said. "It requires the best creative minds in the country to study the problems and needs and explore the exciting possibilities for the future."

Norton, who introduced a bill last year to revitalize the Mall, said in written testimony yesterday: "The Mall needs, and must get, a total makeover for the 21st century."

She said in spoken remarks that she loves the place, "even in its decrepit condition," and made a closing plea to planners and legislators:

"If I could just put in a plug for restrooms."


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