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Time To Fix The National Mall

Chip Akridge, one of Washington's most prolific builders, spends his morning jog checking in on his downtown office buildings and ranging across the Mall to visit Mr. Jefferson. Running in the early light, he's often swept up in a patriotic reverie, taking in the dome, the obelisk, the Wall -- the iconic shapes that symbolize democratic liberty.

"I generally stop, salute and thank God I was born in this country," Akridge says.

But these days, the developer is sending a different message about the place he runs through each morning. The Mall, Akridge has sadly concluded, "is a disgrace," a neglected hodgepodge of denuded grounds, oversize tents and port-a-potties deposited almost at random.

As the buds start to pop and the Mall comes alive with kickball and Frisbee players, it's easy to overlook what a mess we've made of the nation's showcase landscape. But Akridge's new Trust for the National Mall and a group called the National Mall Conservancy are trying to force Congress and the private sector to end decades of dysfunction and create the Mall's first new vision in a century.

An opportunity to tell visitors the story of this country has been lost, and it's easy to see why. There's the inability of Congress to say no to interest groups that want their memorial or museum on the Mall; the National Park Service's failure to enforce reasonable restrictions on business, religious and advocacy groups that build huge encampments on the Mall's central corridor; and the inadequate funding and planning that leave tourists searching for information, restrooms, food and water.

The worst of the security hysteria that turned the Mall into a symbol of fear and bureaucratic ineptitude after 9/11 is finally over. Some less-offensive security measures, like the low walls around the Washington Monument, are replacing the blizzard of Jersey barriers and fences that made the Mall so ugly for too long. But port-a-potties still dot the landscape, and the Mall's 25 million annual visitors must make do with just 100 toilets, 54 rangers and three places to buy water. The Jefferson Memorial is sinking into the Potomac River so quickly that large portions of the path around it are submerged.

Akridge says the Mall needs $350 million for deferred maintenance plus more for a long list of improvements -- a total of $500 million, an amount no one believes the federal government will cough up. So the Trust is launching a campaign to persuade Americans to do for the Mall what private sources did for New York City's Central Park, where a $500 million fund drive achieved a remarkable about-face for a jewel that had become an urban nightmare.

This is not an easy fundraising challenge. Not a single voter lives on the Mall's 700 acres. And it isn't exactly a place where companies and billionaires will be encouraged to attach their names to create the Taco Bell World War II Memorial or the Bill Gates Reflecting Pool.

Akridge says he will follow the model of the private drive to restore the Statue of Liberty, asking high school kids and tycoons alike to contribute. "I'm going to say, 'Mr. Trillionaire: You wouldn't have that money if it weren't for this country,' " he says. " 'It's time to pony up.' "

Meanwhile, the Mall Conservancy, under the direction of longtime advocate Judy Scott Feldman, is focusing on expanding the Mall's boundaries to create space for future memorials and museums, adding parking to the existing area and emboldening Congress to stand tall against such foolhardy, anti-intellectual projects as the visitors center that is supposed to "explain" the Vietnam Wall.

Both Akridge and Feldman say the Park Service initially resisted offers of help, but they now seem encouraged that the Mall's managers are open to change. The Park Service is writing a new plan for the Mall, and although its initial concept was criticized by some who feared having demonstrations restricted, the Mall's deputy superintendent, Steve Lorenzetti, says the addition of a gathering space for protesters at the foot of the Capitol will not make it any harder for demonstrators to gain access to traditional protest spots.

Still, the level of suspicion among Mall users is matched only by the tangle of bureaucracies that makes any improvement difficult. No fewer than 17 agencies have some say over what happens on the Mall.

Even with such a daunting process, Akridge believes the Mall can be preserved for political expression and equipped with restored structures, audio tours, interactive maps, costumed historic interpreters, food service and, yes, restrooms. Now that's optimism -- which, of course, is one of the Mall's most basic messages.

By Marc Fisher |  March 9, 2008; 8:29 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Gee whiz, I don't know about these improvements-- If you make the mall too nice, it could become a haven for those "Wolves in Blazers" whom Marc decries so eloquently. And then we'd all be in terrible danger.

Posted by: Churchill H.S. Potomac | March 9, 2008 12:57 PM

I arrived in Washington in 1967. From my first day on the Mall, and every subsequent visit, there has been some kind of disruption. There are "snow" fences and various types of construction/destruction going on all of the time.

The Mall is America's front and back yard. I think it is always been in transition and I believe it always should be.

Posted by: Michael1945 | March 9, 2008 1:09 PM

Hooray. Finally someone to give shape to the vision for the Mall. I almost cry when I see the snow fences, Jersey barriers, and torn up grass when I visit the mall, and always wonder why for all my life the biggest park in downtown Washington was services by porta-potties. Hooray to those who have a vision to make it the great urban central park of Washington.

Posted by: Rick | March 9, 2008 1:43 PM

A vistor's center to "explain" the Vietnam Wall, formerly known as "The Black Pit of Shame." Sounds like a Republican Congress sort of thing. No such need for Arlington National Cemetary. People understand immediately and intuitively bodies buried underground because (some) lives were cut short in service to a delusional leader. It is quite true that our leaders considers us to be about as intelligent as sheep. We seek out warmth and comfort and food and drink and sex. We fear what we are told to fear and vote as we are told to vote; as God intended. And shop 'til we drop or the plastic wears out.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | March 9, 2008 1:54 PM

They should make it completely pedestrian friendly while preserving the view. An architect should be hired to design an series of environmentally grass roofed undergound restrooms that could be hidden underneath the grass of the mall itself.

A tourist parking garage that costs no more than $5 should be constructed on the virginia side near pentagon city and free london double decker buses could go between this parking garage and the mall.

Every museum should have a rooftop restaurant with amazing views added to it with an exterior elevator to ferry folks up directly from the street without having to go in the museum. These restaurants would need be good, and their success would be assured by a having a competition to vote the best regional existing restaurants to have an option to establish new business there, rather than getting mediocre smithsonian fare.

I think these three suggestions would sove the problem of restrooms, parking, and food that are the big three.

Posted by: Brady | March 9, 2008 1:57 PM

I'll take port-a-potties anyday over the embarrassingly ugly World War II Memorial, and the even-more-embarrassing "imitation wall" at the Korean War Memorial - not to mention the sprawling disgrace that's known as the FDR Memorial.

There. Someone needed to say it.

Posted by: D R | March 9, 2008 1:58 PM

Gee, D R, lighten up!
My grandfather (WW2 vet) loves that memorial.
My son learned a lot about FDR when I took him to it.
Does anything make you happy at all?

Posted by: the anti-D R | March 9, 2008 2:14 PM

Probably as soon as the Capitol Building visitor center is done, the next step is the rest of the mall. The grass will never look good, because there are no sprinklers. There is something similar in Paris, close to Eiffel Tower, and although people sit on the grass or play sports, it still looks very good. I think the National Mall should remain rather a casual place. Think about the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival: it damages the mall a lot, every year, but where else it can be hosted?

Posted by: Chris | March 9, 2008 2:33 PM

I say forget any more concession stands and bathrooms on the Mall. Tourists can bring a bottle of water with them from their hotel and they can hold it until they get back to the hotel. We don't need places to buy water and pee every 50 yards on the Mall.

Posted by: googleguy | March 9, 2008 3:15 PM

A big ol THANKS (for nothing) goes to the current administration and DC government for the state of the monuments. They are more interested in giving away billons to their buddies and not using tax dollars to do what is right.

Posted by: GeorgeWB | March 9, 2008 3:23 PM

Thanks to our penchant for wars our nation is too deep in debt to clean up The Mall or repair our schools or teach music or art in our schools. No money for gardens or roads or public toilets. Washington DC is stop #1 for a huge number of foreign tourists. Stop #2 after New York or LA for many others. Leave The appearance of the Reflecting or Reflection Pools only reflects the true condition of our nation's infrastructure. Let them stand in disrepair as a warning to those may consider venturing further into our broken land.

Posted by: thw2001 | March 9, 2008 3:30 PM

I don't live ON the Mall, but I live just north of it (Archives), and work just south of it. I walk across the Mall to work. I would donate money to this project. I'm not a big corporation, but every little bit counts, no?

To me, placing more park benches along the Mall should be a huge priority, and also resurfacing the turf and planting more beautiful flowers, plants, etc. on the periphery.

Other than that, please don't build up the space too much. We don't need "visitors' pavilions" every 10 ft.

I guess I didn't notice the lack of bathrooms as much b/c I live and work so nearby, I can just go there to go to the bathroom. But it IS a very important comfort issue for visitors, so I definitely support more bathrooms (probably in the museums themselves? Not sure where else they would put them right ON the Mall), and so is finding places to eat. Until the Native American museum opened (LOVE the cafeteria there!), there were pretty much no "real food" options right on the Mall.

Posted by: PQ | March 9, 2008 3:41 PM

Wait, "costumed historic interpreters" ? I just read that part at the end. OK, that's going a little far. This isn't Disneyland.

Posted by: PQ | March 9, 2008 3:46 PM

gee, that group sounds like they want to move protests to "free speech zones".

Posted by: trey | March 9, 2008 3:52 PM

In some respects the Mall looks better than ever. The Native American Museum is gorgeous. The Washington Monument's security enhancements are terrific (please tear down that ugly stage adjacent to it). I opposed the concept of the World War II Memorial but in reality it looks a lot better than the perpetually broken stand-alone fountain that preceeded it. The FDR is a monstrosity but my dog enjoys the water spray in the summer. The snow fencing on the eastern half up to the Capitol Reflecting Pool this winter was an absurd eyesore. The Lincoln Reflecting Pool would look better if a realistic walkway was put in on both sides of it. Whoever supervises the Park Service grounds maintenance is incompetent. Stanton Park, which the Park Service overseas, is a muddy fiasco and also blighted by snow fences. There needs to be fewer events on the Mall. How about a 2-year moratorium on any events so the grass can recover, and limited events - very limited - afterward?

Posted by: T S | March 9, 2008 3:57 PM

Forgot to mention that the Jefferson Memorial is indeed hideous these days -- barricaded with those awful concrete barriers. Does anyone really think the Jefferson is a big mark in this target-rich area? Looks like Beirut 20 years ago.

Posted by: TS | March 9, 2008 4:04 PM

T S,

You're complaining about the snow fences, yet you also complain about the turf, and propose a moratorium on events so the grass can recover?

You do realize what the snow fences are there for, don't you?

Posted by: Alex B. | March 9, 2008 4:08 PM

the mall like our nation is turning into a garbage dumping site.

Posted by: dwight | March 9, 2008 4:12 PM

Uh, George, the Mall is federal property. DC government has very little if any say over how it is maintained.

I totally second the idea for rooftop restaurants. That's a terrific idea. That is something both tourists and locals could benefit from.

Posted by: Hillman | March 9, 2008 4:18 PM

Forget citizens and corporations subsidizing the Park Service budget. Take some of that $1.5 trillion in war funds and apply it to the Mall and other national treasures.

Posted by: jackwells | March 9, 2008 4:33 PM

Alex B,

The snow fences would be more useful if they'd seed the mud so grass could grow.

After several months in place, this past week they've removed the snowfencing from the west side of the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

Hallelujah, we are again free to walk in the mud.


Posted by: T S | March 9, 2008 4:44 PM

The World War II memorial has all the emotional impact of a parking garage. I supported its location but once I saw it in person it occured to me that we shortchanged the effort and lives that were lost.
I know it will never be relocated or changed I can only hope that any future "improvements" to the Mall will in some way mask the huge shortcomings of this granite repository.

Posted by: Jim | March 9, 2008 5:25 PM

After living in DC for several years, and next to the Mall for the last three, I can summarize the Mall's problem in two words: Park Service. If Akridge is serious about saving the Mall (and it definitely needs saving at this point), I'd suggest funding an independent agency whose only responsibility is the Mall. I've been to many wonderful national parks all over the country, but the Park Service's treatment of DC parks (all of which are under their supervision) is atrocious. They treat DC like an afterthought, not a symbol of our nation's pride.

Europe somehow manages to have beautiful urban parks in their capitals, with restaurants, beer gardens, working restrooms, etc., and yet we're the wealthiest country in the world with a muddy garbage pit in the middle of our capital. Not to mention the crime wave a couple years back. This is a national shame, and I'm glad to see some private organizations are taking part, as I was less than hopeful that the Park Service alone would do anything useful.

Posted by: jason in pq | March 9, 2008 6:23 PM

GREAT A man and community with a Vision.
Push Congress, them dead....need someone to push them to make it better. I was on the mall at New Years Day..It was a disgrace.

Posted by: John | March 9, 2008 7:12 PM

GREAT A man and community with a Vision.
Push Congress, them dead....need someone to push them to make it better. I was on the mall at New Years Day..It was a disgrace.

Posted by: John | March 9, 2008 7:13 PM

Akridge sounds a little excitable. The Mall is fine. The problem is that it gets a lot of use -- and that's a good problem to have. I love it. (I jog it as well and, if I can be selfish for a moment, the soft flat gravel is is the best running surfaces available. I hope Akridge's plan isn't to pave it, or worse, brick it over). Look at the Mall -- is there anything more beautiful on weekday night, for instance, when there are baseball and kickball games underway, people strolling, the light coming in low and creating a dramatic vista? National disgrace? Not for a second. I'm more worried about developer who inflates the condition of the mall to, perhaps, create his own legacy.

Posted by: smoke11 | March 9, 2008 7:27 PM

The Mall is a perfect reflection of what this country has become -- inward, insular and incompetent. Get this nation back on track, and the Mall will follow -- not the other way around.

Posted by: Andy | March 9, 2008 8:58 PM

The condition of the Mall is a national disgrace. It is the federal government's responsibility and tax dollars should fix/restore/maintain it, not private dollars.
There simply has to be an end to these calls for private dollars to fulfill public responsibilities. I recall being asked perhaps ten years ago to contribute to a support organization that was providing bulletproof vests for deputy sheriffs in a community. I can only remember thinking, if we're not budgeting and paying for this as a municipal jurisdiction just what are we spending money on......

Posted by: CW | March 9, 2008 10:56 PM

Dear Washingtonians: Thank you, Chip for taking the lead on this issue. Years ago New Yorkers faced a similar test with Central Park. In New York, the city, like the federal government here, had no real plan for Central Park. New Yorkers came to realize something else had to be done. Chip has the right idea in DC. It begins with the turf, the snow fences and barriers thrown up quickly to protect the millions who visit each year. I was recently at the Mall...walking around the main core and concluded that the overall area looked a little tired...a little worse for wear. This is the most important real estate in this town. It should look its best all the time and as Washingtonians we should understand better than anyone the Park Service is overwhelmed and cannot do the job without our help. I'm a transplanted New Yorker and as I compare the efforts of individuals who stepped in to fix up both Central Park, The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, I say to my fellow Washingtonians, its time to step up and save this regions two treasures, the Mall and the Bay. Thank you CHip

Posted by: ardano | March 9, 2008 11:47 PM

move those Fed buildings surrounding the Mall to SE and turn them into condos or tear 'em down and build rowhouses, so people can live ON the Mall.

the rest will come.

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