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Park Service presents plan to renovate Mall to Commission of Fine Arts

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; B02

The memorial to Gen. Grant and his dashing soldiers would preside, burnished and restored, over a transformed Union Square at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.

The dilapidated Sylvan Theater, the 1970s-vintage outdoor venue south of the Washington Monument, would be replaced with a multipurpose performance space that would serve food and souvenirs.

The under-used Constitution Gardens would be upgraded -- its lake reconstructed, its landscape rehabilitated.

There would be lots and lots of restrooms.

The Mall -- the worn out, trampled down, 700 acres of Washington that is visited by as many as 25 million people a year -- would get an end-to-end facelift, according to the draft of a National Park Service plan presented Thursday to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

The 600-page document, several years and evolutions in the making, is the Park Service's latest attempt to address the chronically shabby conditions on the Mall, from soil so compacted it contains no living organisms to the sinking seawall that surrounds the Tidal Basin.

The plan, whose initial options were first made public two years ago, has been boiled down to the Park Service's "preferred" alternative that was presented to the arts commission Thursday. The public can comment on the proposal until March 18 by visiting www.nps.gov/nationalmallplan.

The Mall, despite its condition, is often visited by local residents, said Susan Spain, the Mall plan project executive.

"Many people go to the National Mall three or four times a year," she said. "But for a few people it may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It may be their pilgrimage to learn about what it means to be an American."

The plan, whose implementation is expected to cost between $606 million and $648 million, is somewhat general in nature.

"This plan is kind of written concepts," Spain told the commissioners, meeting at their headquarters in the National Building Museum downtown. "It's not a master plan. We're not a design plan." Specific design concepts will be suggested in the future.

Spain described aspects of the plan from east to west, starting with the ideas to improve Union Square -- the part of the Mall that contains the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

The weathered bronze-and-marble memorial, completed in 1921 and one of Washington's most stunning pieces of public art, would be restored.

Spain noted that the reflecting pool, while a favorite of photographers, is filled with dirty water and takes up too much space. The plan would reduce the size of the reflecting pool to make room for public demonstrations and other events, and take pressure off other popular areas of the Mall. It also envisions fountains of some kind and "high-capacity" restrooms."

On the open expanse of the Mall proper, the plan would pave over the now-gravel walkways. The gravel is a "health issue" for many people, Spain said, "and it's a maintenance nightmare for us." Several commissioners, including Chairman Earl A. Powell III, objected, saying gravel walkways, if they're deep enough, have worked elsewhere.

On the grounds of the Washington Monument, the Sylvan Theater would be replaced with a multipurpose facility with food service, restrooms and performance space.

Constitution Gardens, the area north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, is an "an underused place [that] never quite achieved the goal from the 1970s plan, because we didn't provide the facilities that were proposed," Spain said. The plan aims to supply a restaurant and other amenities at the east end of the gardens.

The commission voiced general approval of these and other aspects of the plan. Powell said it was "a commendable project [with] noteworthy goals." Spain said the final version of the plan should be complete this summer. As for funding, Spain said that a "vision" was required first. "Then you pick it off a little bit a time."

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