National Mall

National Mall

Our National Maul: Looking for a Plan to Save the Grass

February 17, 2010, 7:40 am

One year ago President Barack Obama took the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The crowd of half-frozen well wishers stretched nearly to the Washington Monument, four million feet inflicting even further damage on what is often called "the nation's front yard."

Yet the National Park Service grounds keepers had the audacity to hope grass would sprout as usual on the National Mall come springtime. Still, as chief horticulturist Rob DeFeo notes, decades of heavy human traffic have taken a toll: "Basically, the bulk density of the soil is the same as cinder block."

The grass did return, albeit as scruffy and spotty as ever. Now the Park Service has its hopes riding on systemic change. It's in the process of formulating a long-range master plan that amounts to a makeover of the historic but seriously stressed landscape.

This will be a "respectful rehabilitation," according to Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan. The public has until March 18 to register opinions on the Park Service's website. More than 30,000 Americans have weighed in so far.

"This is a place that brings out extremely heart-felt comments," Spain says.

The rehab plan also received a boost from the almost 30 inches of snow that fell on the mall this month, according to Park Service spokesman Bill Line. "The snow serves as a buffer for all the visitors we're still getting ... and, yes, we're still getting a lot of visitors despite the weather," he said. "It also acts as insulation for the remaining grass."

The eventual runoff from the snow also provides insurance that the lawn will get plenty of water in the event of a dry spring, Line added.

The National Mall proper is a narrow greenway (1.9 miles long and a few hundred yards wide) that runs from the foot of the Capitol to the stately Lincoln Memorial, with several hundred contiguous acres hugging the Potomac River. The Washington Monument pokes skyward at roughly the Mall's midpoint. The Smithsonian Institution's extended family of museums line the periphery on the east end, while the west end focuses on matters more somber, what with the addition over the years of the Vietnam, Korean, and World War II memorials in close proximity to Lincoln.

Pierre L'Enfant conceived the basic design of the National Mall in 1791 at the behest of President George Washington. He had almost 400 English elm planted and , against all odds, thirty-five of the original trees are still clinging to life. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a dream-team commission to embellish L'Enfant's work. Its members included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The Mall is where makeshift Hoovervilles sprang up during the Depression, where mass rallies have been held in favor of civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War, where teabaggers gathered to grouse this winter. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech there and fireworks arc overhead every Fourth of July.

An estimated 26 million tourists visit annually. Imagine what your front yard would look like under that kind of assault. The Park Service faces formidable obstacles, not the least of which is about $400 million in deferred maintenance. Some people contend the Mall has been overbuilt of late. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight laments it has deteriorated from a "living work of civic art" into a "Pork Barrel Promenade." But almost everybody agrees it's overtaxed.

The Mall hosted 4,000 events in 2009, among them the Marine Corps Marathon, a kite festival, and the Department of Energy's annual Solar Decathlon, a three-week-long construction party where 20 teams of college students compete to built the most energy-efficient, solar-powered home.

Park Service officials spent three years investigating future-use options, seeking to balance the patriotic right to unfettered assembly with the need to maintain some degree of aesthetic and logistical control. The resulting 620-page document consists of a "preferred" master plan and five possible alternatives.

The preferred choice combines ground-level upgrades, including improved storm water drainage and a selection of a turf able to "withstand high use". The plan has the lofty goal of increasing crowd capacity by 230,00 but diverting non-political activities like, say, the Solar Decathlon to other locations. It calls for construction of two multi-purpose facilities, extra restrooms and bikes lanes, plus new amenities such as cell phone tours and lawn-chair rentals. An initial $56 million in repair work has been approved by Congress

The most intriguing aspect of the plan may be its omissions. The Park Service nixed a slew of suggestions. For example, it's not recommending the construction of underground walkways between the museums and memorials, or a grand visitors center. Nor does it see any compelling need for a "Walk of Presidents" with interactive figures (thus sparing some poor engineer the nightmarish task of having to design a dynamic Gerald Ford automaton).

The 620-page report reads like any 620-page government report. Thankfully, the Park Service periodically posts samples of the public comments online, one of which advised that a border collie be stationed at the Lincoln Memorial to chase away all those pesky Canada geese.

Judging from the National Mall Plan feedback, many folks still haven't warmed up to the sprawling World War II Memorial. "A disaster," one person writes. "Looks like it was designed by the Nazis," says another. "After the last World War II vet dies, removes this ugly eyesore," adds a third.

More than 90 percent of the comments received pertain to the sanctity of the First Amendment. The Park Service had contemplated confining political demonstrations to designated areas on the Mall. Americans vehemently oppose restrictions of any kind. As a typical respondent observes, "The lawn is not important. Free speech is."

Democracy tends to be messy business, as President Obama can attest from the battles over his health care legislation. Maybe the nation shouldn't expect to have a House Beautiful front yard.

Susan Spain discovered something interesting while studying the world's renowned communal spaces, be it Piazza San Marco in Venice or Beijing's Tiananmen Square. They're all thoroughly urbanized magnets, with neatly confined boundaries and paved or cobble-stoned surfaces.

"This country has this great civic space that's a green space," she says. "That's the challenge: It wouldn't be the National Mall unless it was free and open to the public."