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Spring Sprucing “America’s Front Yard”: Finalists Announced for National Mall Redesign

East view of the Mall from the Washington Monument. Credit: Coleen Gentles

Eighteen months ago, the National Park Service (NPS) in conjunction with the Trust for the National Mall, created the 2010 National Mall Plan, a vision for the kinds of resource conditions, visitor experiences, and facilities that would best fulfill the purpose of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Stretching west from the U.S. Capitol to the Potomac River, and north from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to Constitution Avenue, the National Mall is primarily under the jurisdiction of NPS, but multiple governmental agencies and organizations also have ownership over lands and roads within and adjacent to the National Mall.  These other entities, the Architect of the Capitol, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Department of Agriculture, the General Services Administration, the District of Columbia, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, all provided critical input into the National Mall Plan.

A nine-month National Mall Design Competition targeted three focal sites for redesign, and in April, the Trust for the National Mall chose four finalists for each area from a pool of 58 entries.  Those finalists were on display for public comment, until a panel of eight judges consisting of landscape architects, academics, architects, critics, and historians, selected the three winning teams last week.  The three sites to be redesigned are:

  • Constitution Gardens, a natural area adjacent to the Reflecting Pool and World War II Memorial, which has suffered from poor drainage and underuse.
  • Washington Monument Grounds, including Sylvan Theater, an underutilized performance space near the National Monument.
  • Union Square, located directly west of the Capitol building, home to the Capitol reflecting pool and Grant memorial.

And the winners of the design competition are:

  • Rogers Marvel Architects & Peter Walker and Partners for Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial, whose designs include an overhauled water basin for model boats and ice skating, and a new restaurant pavilion to overlook the park.
  • OLIN & Weiss/Manfredi for the Washington Monument grounds, whose designs include a wooded canopy for Sylvan Theater, and a new pavilion with a cafe for the walkway to the nearby Tidal Basin.
  • Gustafson Guthrie Nichol & Davis Brody Bond for Union Square Union Square and the Capitol Reflecting Pool, whose designs remove the reflecting pond that lies parallel to the Capitol and adds a pond at the nearest grass panel on the Mall.  (This design plan will be forwarded to the Architect of the Capitol.)

The Trust for the National Mall, NPS’s not-for-profit fundraising and advocacy partner, will conduct a $350 million fundraising campaign over seven years to support the capital costs of revitalizing these three spaces.  The Trust will begin fundraising for its two projects, while the Architect of the Capitol will handle fundraising for Union Square.  The entire National Mall Plan should cost about $700 million.  The next phase of the competition will identify and evaluate costs ahead of implementation, with roughly half of the costs coming from the private sector.

West View from Washington Monument, with World War II Memorial in foreground, Lincoln Memorial in back, and Constitution Gardens on right. Credit: Coleen Gentles

The National Mall Plan aims to better accommodate the high level and diversity of use the National Mall receives.  With 25 million visitors each year, the National Mall is one of the most highly trafficked parks in the country.  As a result, it requires resilient design and a variety of visitor-serving facilities.

To this end, the National Mall Plan proposed enhanced circulation and access for pedestrians, a goal the NPS had already begun to support through park-wide investments in new signage.  It also proposed new performance space, food and beverage concessions, shaded seating areas, restrooms, and recreational opportunities and facilities.

The Plan recommends specific uses for each of the design competition sites, which are reflected in the designs of the finalists.  It prioritized improved food venues and enhanced pedestrian access at Constitution Gardens.  The redesigned Sylvan Theater will better accommodate local events, and additional facilities will offer food service, retail, and other visitor services.

Union Square was planned as a First Amendment demonstration and event space; however, in December, jurisdiction over the site was transferred from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol due to security concerns.  It remains unclear whether the proposed plans and winning design for this location will be implemented.

The Mall’s scale and formality, combined with large-scale federal/institutional and roadway adjacencies, create a space that is most successful at showcasing monuments and memorials, and perhaps less effective at welcoming visitors and providing community space.  It provides few dedicated places to stop and linger: to have a picnic, play recreational sports (the Mall is particularly ill-configured for the kickball games it so often hosts), enjoy a cultural program, or rest between site-seeing destinations.

If properly executed with quality design, active programming, and able stewardship, the rehabilitation of these spaces will provide new destinations with food, seating, programming, and signature design.  These amenities can anchor and sustain the strong tourist economy and provide authentic and desirable gathering places for local and regional residents.  This constitutes a unique and untapped opportunity to integrated community spaces and national icons at the heart of the city.

This will be the Mall’s first major renovation in nearly 40 years.  Groundbreaking for the first project will take place by 2014, with the first ribbon-cutting expected by 2016, the Mall’s centennial anniversary.

View renderings of the winning designs here.

Bike Sharing Stations to Come to National Mall

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. will soon have bike sharing stations. Credit: Mr. T (Flickr Feed).

Last week, Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare celebrated its one millionth ride, just in time for its one year anniversary. The nation’s capital is the first community in North America to offer a government-sponsored bike sharing system. Capital Bikeshare is extremely popular, attracting over 18,000 members in the past year. This milestone warranted a party, so the “1st Birthday Bash,” coinciding with Car Free Day, was held in one of D.C.’s newest waterfront parks, Yards Park.

We’ve written before about bringing bike sharing programs to parks, and the success of Capital Bikeshare has led to plans of 60 additional stations in the District as well as Arlington, VA in the next six months. There are even plans to expand northwards and add stations in Rockville and Shady Grove, MD.

But even more exciting than adding stations to the suburbs, The Washington Post reports the National Park Service is allowing Capital Bikeshare to have stations on the National Mall beginning next year. Hopefully this will be the stepping-stone for opening stations in other national parks, including Anacostia Park and Rock Creek Park, increasing usership to them. The National Park Service is also considering adding bike sharing stations to the numerous other circles, squares, and triangle properties they own throughout the District.

For the 10 million annual visitors to the National Mall, these bright red bicycles cannot come soon enough. Currently the closest bike sharing stations can be up to a half-mile away from the most popular tourist and recreational attractions. Eradicating this “bike-share desert in the heart of the District” could only mean increased usership for locals and tourists alike. And because the National Park Service has goals of promoting increased and safer bicycle usage around the Mall, as indicated in the National Mall Plan, adding more bicycle lanes or trails to this area would go in tandem with bike sharing stations.

Placing bike sharing stations in parks will not only bring additional users to city parks, but help increase connectivity to parks and other recreational destinations throughout the city. Encouraging commuters to bicycle through parks as part of their daily route would increase mental as well as physical health. And with the District Department of Transportation giving away 500 helmets to frequent Capital Bikeshare riders, as well as local hotels lending helmets to tourists, safety will come first too.

A Dream Come True: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Finally Unveiled on National Mall

Called “America’s Front Yard” by Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the National Mall is the beating park heart of the Nation’s Capital and draws over 24 million[1] visitors a year.  The National Mall stretches west from the foot of Capitol Hill at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial to encompass the Mall itself, the Washington Monument Grounds, the Tidal Basin area, and West Potomac Park before terminating at the Watergate Steps behind the Lincoln Memorial.  Unfortunately this “front yard” never really had a front gate or front door to invite one in until the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was unveiled last week at the Tidal Basin.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial “Stone of Hope.” Credit: National Park Service.

Fourteen years in the making (a record really, it took over 40 years from Congressional approval until its dedication in May, 1997 to complete the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the last person monument built at the Tidal Basin), the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a fitting tribute to a man known for combating racial inequality and advocating for freedom, justice, and love.  It is the first memorial on the National Mall devoted, not to a United States President or war hero, but a citizen activist for civil rights and peace.

A fan-shaped entry court guides visitors to the main entrance of the memorial, first through the “Mountain of Despair,” two massive, roughly arch-shaped granite bookends, symbolizing the struggle faced in the quest for peace and equality.  From within the struggle, a piece of the colossal boulder has been removed and thrust into the open plaza.  This “Stone of Hope” includes a 30-foot tall statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., emerging from the granite and facing southeast, away from the main entrance.  The separation of the “Stone of Hope” is meant to look as if it has been pulled out of the arch of the “Mountain of Despair.”  The statue is angled slightly so that visitors first encounter a quotation by King, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” before they encounter King himself.

The 450-foot long green granite “Inscription Wall” arcs on either side of the “Mountain of Despair,” engraved with fourteen quotes from Dr. King’s speeches and writings, embodying the universal themes of love, justice, democracy and hope.  The four-acre memorial faces inward, away from the Mall, and also includes the addition of more than 180 new cherry trees, ensuring a continuous burst of blooming blossoms around the Tidal Basin come spring.

The memorial takes the final spot on the shores of the Tidal Basin, sitting on the northwest corner beside the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  Its location on a diagonal axis from the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, to the Jefferson Memorial, inscribed with the unfulfilled “promissory note” of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal,” creates a visual “line of leadership” between three men whose ideals shaped the nation.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial cost $120 million to build and is expected to draw an estimated five million visitors each year.

Before the first granite blocks were brought over from China, the site required extensive infrastructure improvements.  The original soils in West and East Potomac Parks came from dredged river bottom during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that created Hains Point, the Washington Channel, and the Tidal Basin.  Because the ground has a very low capacity to carry any weight, the King memorial was built on more than 340 concrete pilings driven to bedrock, approximately 50 feet below the plaza level of the memorial.

Over the past 126 years, 12 monuments and memorials have been constructed on the nation’s most symbolically rich ground, each reflecting an important moment in U.S. history.  The addition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial adds another layer to this irreplaceable piece of our American fabric, providing the first person of color and only non-president, a well-deserved place in the American pantheon.


[1] This figure includes visitors to the Memorial Parks as well as the National Mall.  Visitorship to just the National Mall is 10 million people per year. (From 2010 City Park Facts).

Fund National Mall Upkeep with Parking Revenue?

The Washington Post editors get behind the idea of paid parking on the streets within the National Mall, to support improvements and upkeep for what is currently a dire situation. A letter to the editor last week suggested the idea, born out of observations that employees and business-goers to Mall buildings were snatching up the spots instead of visitors. Here’s an excerpt:

End the practice of free parking. We called a spokesman for the National Park Service, which controls the Mall; the spokesman at first pooh-poohed the idea — and then called back to say that paid parking is being considered. That’s good news, because the proposal makes a lot of sense from both fiscal and environmental standpoints……. There are some 1,200 spots, mainly along Jefferson and Madison drives between 3rd and 14th streets and along Constitution Avenue west of 17th Street. That could generate as much as $4 million a year if the park service were to adopt the same formula of meter fees as the city employs.

This would likely be a drop in the bucket compared to the $350 million in deferred maintenance on the Mall, but it is a practical way to draw some money, espeically if Congress continues its failure to recognize just how much the Mall needs a total makeover. (The core area of the Mall receives over 10 million visitors per year, much more than the 3 million expected at the Capitol itself and its $621 million visitor center Congress funded.)

Even better, a paid parking policy would encourage users to take transit to the Mall, and reduce the pressure to provide parking by putting a market rate on it. (Our article on parking in parks suggested such a strategy last year for significant city parks.)

Change for the Nation as well as the National Mall?

The inaguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President is set to bring millions to our National Mall. What a better time to highlight the troubles of our nation’s front yard, and the opportunities a new administration and stimulus package could bring. Christopher Knight of the LA Times penns a piece explaining the issues:

Tragically, America’s front yard has gone to seed, its dilapidation over a generation chronicled with increasing regularity in the press, including The Times. The embarrassing disarray represents the larger state of the nation, and the time has come to fix it. Deferred maintenance alone stands at an estimated $350 million — without necessary improvements figured in. The National Mall should be a priority in the rehabilitation of America’s crumbling infrastructure, a target of Obama’s economic stimulus spending.

We may see just that. The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed list of spending includes the Mall, giving “$200 million to address the deterioration of the National Mall, such as repair of the Jefferson Memorial’s collapsing Tidal Basin walls.” Change may be coming to the Mall – though it may not even be enough. We will follow this and update.

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