By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
The latch is missing from the stall door in the public restroom south of the Washington Monument. The hinges are bent. The partition is wobbly. Paint is peeling from the ceiling. Rust stains the toilet fixtures, and two signs on a wall warn in red letters: "No Bathing."
Outside, along the two-and-a-quarter-mile strip of green between the Capitol and the Potomac River known as the Mall, broad swaths of grass are trampled to dust. Light fixtures are broken or missing. The ornamental brick circles around the famed elms are buried under dirt and gravel.
Reflecting pools are cloudy with muck. An underground irrigation system is inoperable. And the oldest structure on the Mall has missing and boarded up windows.
The Mall, the historic stretch of green known as "America's front yard," has long needed a facelift. The National Park Service says it needs $350 million in deferred maintenance.
People in power have started to notice the shabbiness.
Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee recommended an extra $100 million for upgrades and maintenance. In April, the Bush administration announced a $2.2 million public-private program to erect new signs on the Mall. And in November, the Trust for the National Mall was established to help raise private donations.
"We certainly have a lot of people who are coming to realize how important this place is," Peggy O'Dell, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said last week.
The Park Service says national parks across the country need $6 billion in deferred maintenance, a figure that has more than doubled in eight years. The Mall draws 20 million visitors a year, more than the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite parks combined. It is the location of the nation's most famous monuments and memorials and the site of some of the country's most historic public gatherings.
"It's a place that people come and they use hard, and it shows its wear," O'Dell said. "It's showing its age, and it's showing its wear."
The grass has been battered by giant public events, as it is this month with workers setting up the mammoth encampment of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
"It got this way through complete and total inattention," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said. "You've got to keep the lawns mowed. But if nobody's looking, you don't have to do much more than that."
Not only was nobody looking, critics say, but few Washington insiders seemed to care.
"This is just one of the areas where there wasn't a vocal enough constituency," said John E. "Chip" Akridge, chairman of the Trust for the National Mall, which estimates $100 million is needed for building repairs, new restrooms and restaurants.
In 2006 the Bush administration unveiled the Centennial Initiative, proposing that up to $100 million in federal money be spent annually on the park system for 10 years. The goal was to generate, along with private donations, as much as $3 billion by the time the Park Service marks its 100th anniversary in 2016.
But this year, the initiative only got $24.6 million in federal funds and $27 million in philanthropic contributions. In April, it announced the first funding of, among other things, the Mall sign project.
The House interior and the environment appropriations subcommittee recommended a separate $100 million appropriation to redress what Chairman Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) called the "lack of investment in necessary maintenance." In an interview, he called the Mall's condition "marginal."
"The Park Service has been underfunded," he said. "Things just weren't taken as good a care of as they should have been."
Thanks to the Park Service, much of the Mall, flanked by grand museums and public structures, still dazzles. Many tourists say it doesn't look that bad.
"I think it's amazing, considering the amount of people, the amount of heavy traffic here," Patrick Crofton, 58, of Philadelphia said recently as he stood near the Washington Monument. "I'm pretty impressed."
But Mall visitor Shanti Corrigan, 39, of Berkeley, Calif., who lived in the District in the 1990s, said: "I don't think it looks that great, compared to when I used to live here. They haven't created the kind of welcoming environment you would want for the nation's capital."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, enhanced security on the Mall has been a priority. Barriers have gone up at the Washington Monument and are almost finished at the Lincoln Memorial. A temporary lighting system is in place along the Lincoln reflecting pool.
Many local officials, residents and advocates say the Mall's condition has badly deteriorated. At a congressional hearing last month, it was described as decrepit.
Tourists sometimes "take the 30,000-foot view," said Akridge, who called the Mall "a disgrace" at the hearing and has lobbied Congress on its behalf.
"You're looking at those iconic structures," he said. "The long view is fabulous. You need to look at the 30-foot view. That's where it becomes pretty bad."
On a recent tour of the Mall, he pointed out the 1830s stone canal house at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
Passed by hundreds of tourists every day, the oldest structure on the Mall is heavily overgrown with bushes. Windows and doors are boarded up. The woodwork looks as if it hasn't been painted in years.
Nearby, the Bicentennial-era lake at Constitution Gardens, west of the World War II Memorial, is spotted with algae. Its stone border and east terrace are crumbling in places.
The souvenir and snack stand at 15th Street and Madison Drive NW resides under a torn and faded tent where visitors sit at metal picnic tables on dirty rubber matting amid trash cans and foraging crows.
Across the Tidal Basin, an area considered part of the Mall, the Jefferson Memorial's sea wall is sinking into the water. So much of the basin's southwest sea wall is overtopped at high tide that a footpath detour has been built.
"There are not a lot of things that don't have that nick or ding, or need a coat of paint," Akridge said.
Despite a few new restrooms and snack shops, a chronic scarcity of both remains, he said.
The Mall was part of the original 1791 plan formulated by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French-born architect hired by George Washington to design the capital.
It has undergone many changes. It was expanded with fill dredged from the Potomac River and then populated with the famous monuments and memorials.
In 1902, the Senate commissioned the McMillan Plan, an ambitious program for the Mall that was inspired by Europe's great parks.
The Park Service is working on a new plan for the Mall, seeking public input and weighing alternatives.
But some people want more than a plan. Judy Scott Feldman, head of the nonprofit National Coalition to Save Our Mall, says a new McMillan-like commission is needed.
"You can fix up things all you want," she said. "But really what we need is something bigger that deals with bigger issues."