Senate to consider National Mall

The future of the National Mall, home to some of the country’s most prominent museums and monuments, will be the topic of discussion at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing this afternoon.

In 2003, Congress passed a moratorium declaring the Mall a “completed work of civic art” and established the area as a reserve. However, as security projects are executed and more monuments are proposed, many citizens and lawmakers are asking: What’s next?

The panel’s National Parks Subcommittee will try to answer that question as senators question representatives from several organizations with a stake in what will become of the Mall in upcoming years. Issues will include Mall expansion, transportation to the monuments and security, said Marnie Funk, the communications director for the Energy and Natural Resource Committee.

“The purpose for this hearing is to receive testimony on the history of the National Mall, current construction projects and security efforts, and future development,” subcommittee Chairman Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) said in a statement. “During the last few years I have seen many changes on the Mall. My concern is that continuing to make these additions on the Mall may serve to degrade the integrity of this place.”

Thomas added, “We need to plan for growth with the understanding that filling in every nook and cranny does not serve our main goal: Maintaining the National Mall as a place of national significance.”

The Mall suffers from a lack of coordinated planning and definition, said Judy Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, who called the Mall “an orphan with many parents.”

Feldman said her group worries that, in the future, politically popular memorials such as a Desert Storm memorial or a tribute to late President Ronald Reagan could sway lawmakers to bend the rules. She said the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitors center, which was approved within the same bill that imposed the moratorium, was only the beginning of the violations of the ban on building.

“Everyone knows the moratorium isn’t going to last,” she said.

John Parsons, associate regional director for lands, resources and planning for the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, defined the Mall as the area between the White House and the Jefferson Memorial and between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. The National Park Service is the major land operator of the Mall.

Parsons, who will testify on behalf of the National Park Service, said it was unlikely that any new projects would be put on the Mall. He said he was assisting several groups with memorial ideas to find sites for their projects off the Mall.

He said that during the hearing he hopes to revisit the Legacy Plan, developed in 1997 by the National Capitol Planning Commission (NCPC), which provides planning guidance over federal lands in Washington and its surrounding areas. The NCPC’s plan suggests creating more major memorial sites by expanding the Mall into the area around RFK Stadium and the South Capitol Street corridor.

“The Legacy Plan was the vision for the 21st century,” said NCPC Chairman John V. Cogbill III, who also will testify.

Another witness will be David Childs, chairman of the U.S Commission of Fine Arts.

“The Commission on Fine Arts is in the unique position to access the aesthetic quality of new development of the Mall and its environs in general,” said Thomas Luebke, the commission’s secretary.

He added that the commission is in charge of design review for the various projects placed on the Mall.

“We act as a quality check for design purview,” he said.

Luebke said the commission is supporting the idea of a new Mall master plan and the establishment of a Mall conservancy, similar to New York’s Central Park Conservancy, which would blend public and private support for revitalization and maintenance projects on the Mall.

One of the new challenges for the 21st century Mall planners is striking a balance between public access to and security measures around the cherished memorials.

Cogbill said the NCPC was concerned about Mall security and had urged the removal of the unsightly gray Jersey barriers from around the monuments. He praised the security renovations that are ongoing at the Washington Monument that will create “ha ha walls.” From above, the short walls create the illusion of a smooth hill but actually are “fairly shallow” barriers that fit into the hillside and provide security around the monument.

“It’s going to be a pastoral environment,” Cogbill said.

The hearing will also address parking constraints around the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.

Parsons said there are places to park under the 14th Street Bridge and along Ohio Drive to access the various monuments. He said the National Park Service plans to make parking available closer to the monuments for handicapped visitors.

The plans for the Mall have changed over the past two centuries. In 1791, Pierre L’Enfant planned the original makeup of Washington and the National Mall. In 1901, the McMillan Commission developed a plan that framed the vast green space created by L’Enfant to “emphasize the formal link between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.” This plan reemphasized L’Enfant’s design and set aside particular spots for open space around the city.