Advocates for Mall Reach Out to Congress

Posted April 11, 2005 at 6:47pm

A group of National Mall advocates has spent much of the past year convening public hearings and knocking on the doors of Congress and federal agencies, hoping to forge a new vision for the Mall’s development and management.

In the activists’ view, the Mall is ill-kept, lacking in amenities, in jeopardy of overcrowding and hampered by an excessive amount of conflicting jurisdictional authority over its real estate.

Now, they’re asking Congress to help them out.

Today at an oversight hearing being held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, the National Mall Third Century Initiative — a project of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall — will call on Congress to create a Mall conservancy or a board of regents made up of leading historians, business leaders, artists and educators that would be responsible for coordinating Mall policy.

In turn, the proposed conservancy would establish a one-year commission responsible for devising a template “for future development and planning by all the government agencies” for the next 100 years and then “go out of business,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. The model would be the 1901-02 McMillan Commission, which produced a plan that dramatically expanded the scope of the Mall, creating the framework that remains in place today.

“This shifts the referee job from Congress to a nationally based board or conservancy,” Feldman said.

Third Century representatives will also ask Congress to enact legislation formally declaring the Mall a single entity stretching from the Capitol to the Potomac River, but also allowing for future expansion, according to a copy of their testimony.

Pointing to what she saw as discrepancies in the National Park Service’s definitions of the Mall, Feldman noted that the Congressional Research Service did its own study in 2003 and said there was “no official definition of the Mall.”

In the meantime, the group is undertaking several pilot projects to make the Mall more visitor-friendly, such as creating a “first-ever Mall map and historic guide” due to be distributed in two weeks.

It will also ask Congress to let it work with other stakeholders to inaugurate a privately funded trial food cart and park furniture program, and possibly even establish a First Amendment Park, based on the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, near the foot of the Capitol on the Senate side.

But key Mall stakeholders expected to testify at the hearing — such as the park service, which controls the largest swath of the Mall, as well as the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts — argue that a framework is already in place for the Mall and that no new entity to coordinate policy is needed.

They say that NCPC’s 1997 Legacy Plan, which laid out a city-wide development vision for the coming century and proposed extending the city’s monumental core to allow for additional memorials throughout the District, is sufficient.

“We feel the Legacy Plan in 1997 creates the vision for this century,” said John Parsons, NPS’ National Capital Region associate regional director for lands, resources and planning. It “essentially set aside the McMillan Plan as the McMillan Plan set aside the L’Enfant Plan.”

Still, Parsons said that NPS “intends to undertake a three-year planning process” to create a new master plan for the Mall, which he said the National Park Service generally defined as stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. (Parsons conceded that NPS, on its Web site, still “technically” defines the Mall as the grassy area “with trees on either side” stretching from 3rd to 14th streets, though he added that this was likely to change.)

“The last plan like this we did was in 1976. It is time to update that and do a plan with full public involvement” that would address everything from “visitor amenities … [to] resource management issues facing us,” he said.

Just how much support exists in Congress to act on Third Century’s request remains to be seen.

Congress’ last major foray into defining the Mall came in late 2003 when it passed an amendment to the Commemorative Works Act, which declared the Mall a “substantially completed work of civic art” and established a “reserve” where the construction of museums or memorials was prohibited, within the core of the cross-axis stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, and the full committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), worked together on that moratorium.

Cameron Hardy, a spokesman for Thomas, said there is “no plan for legislation at this time,” but added that “a planning group of some kind may be formed in the future.”

“Thomas does not have a specific agenda other than fostering a cooperative atmosphere,” Hardy said.

Likewise, a Democratic aide on the full committee said that Bingaman, who took to the Senate floor in September 2003 to protest the NFL’s controversial “Kickoff Live” concert on the National Mall, did not appear likely to push any such legislation at the moment.

“Sen. Bingaman has not discussed with us any issues relevant to the Mall that he thinks need to be addressed at this time,” the aide said. “We are in the middle of a major energy bill right now.”

Third Century has also proposed expanding the definition of the Mall to possibly include the South Capitol Street corridor and East Potomac Park — an idea that both NCPC and NPS rejects.

“All major avenues of the city should stand on their own and not be incorporated into some ever-increasing Mall,” Parsons said.

NCPC Chairman John Cogbill agreed that the Mall had already been defined, pointing to language in the 2003 CWA amendment.

At the hearing, Parsons said he will discuss the agreement the park service signed with the Trust for the National Mall, a private non-profit formed to assist the park service in the maintenance and enhancement of the Mall, that he described as “similar to the conservancy idea.”

Among other issues likely to come up at the “standard oversight hearing,” are the “pressure on the Mall in the last couple of years, in part driven by security concerns and a long-term interest in siting more memorials on the Mall,” said Marnie Funk, the committee’s Republican spokeswoman. Transportation and parking concerns, such as the closures of lots near the Jefferson and Washington Memorials, and the Mall’s possible expansion are also potential topics, she added.

Moreover, Congress passed a law in 2003 giving NPS six months to put forward a plan as to how it would relocate U.S. Park Police stables on the Lincoln Memorial grounds, improve the appearance of concession stands and limit the sale of some merchandise within the Mall’s “reserve.”

But in a March 14, 2005, letter addressing these issues sent to the Energy and Natural Resources panel, Joseph Lawler, the NPS’s National Capital Region regional director, wrote that curbing the sale of merchandise at vigil sites, such as Vietnam Veterans Memorial vigil sites near the Lincoln Memorial, could have “unintended implications,” and lead to the limitation of high school band concerts or political demonstrations.

Lawler also wrote that the “existing site best serves the USPP function” for the stables.

Hardy, Thomas’ spokesman, said the Senator will raise questions about both the stables and the sales at the hearing.

“He feels that sales, such as T-shirt sales, in proximity to our nation’s memorials are inappropriate,” Hardy said.

In the meantime, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources is slated to hold a hearing Thursday examining security, maintenance and preservation issues throughout the park service. As part of this hearing, the protection of the National Mall will also be addressed.