You are here

Interior Department Releases Preferred Plan for National Mall


Interior Department officials have released an ambitious plan for invigorating the worn-down National Mall. Interior Department photos.

The nation's front yard, frayed, rutted, and overwhelmed by millions of feet and years of neglect, is going to be given a much-needed makeover if the Interior Department can figure out how to raise at least $650 million, and likely quite a bit more, for the work.

The National Mall and its collection of memorials and monuments long has been treasured by Americans and visitors to Washington, D.C. Although the site only covers about 684 acres, it received an estimated 22 million visits in 2008—more than twice the annual visits for large parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon combined. But, as with much of the rest of the National Park System, the National Park Service never quite has had enough money in its annual budgets to stay atop the mall's needs.

After a long planning period, one that involved nearly 30,000 comments and input from 11 cooperating agencies and three regional governments, the Interior Department on Tuesday released its preferred alternative, one that carries a rough price tag of $606 million-$648 million.

That price, though, was based largely on 2008 costs, and, Interior officials note in the Final Environmental Impact State, "specific costs would be determined in subsequent, more detailed planning and design exercises. More specific estimates would also consider the design of facilities, the identification of detailed resource protection needs, and changing visitor expectations. Actual costs to the National Park Service will vary depending on if and when the actions are implemented, and on contributions by partners and volunteers."

So, what's in the preferred alternative? Here is an abridged version of the highlights as taken from the FEIS:

* Under the preferred alternative the National Mall, as the premier civic and symbolic space for our nation, would be respectfully rehabilitated and refurbished so that very high levels of use could be perpetuated and the needs of all visitors and users could be met in an attractive, high quality, energy-efficient, and sustainable manner. Its memorials and landscapes would be protected, with large areas of open space as defining features of the historic landscape. The designed historic landscape would evolve, and its value over time would change, reflecting significant national events. Contemporary uses would be accommodated while respecting the planned historic character and visions of the L’Enfant and McMillan plans. The intent would be to establish a sense of place and an overall identity for the National Mall, creating a rich, coherent pedestrian environment that would complement and balance the natural environment, the combination of formal and informal features, and national commemorative works. The National Mall would be emphasized as a year-round destination where the beauty and variety of every season would enhance visitor experiences.

The Mall

* Union Square. Some of the most important changes would be made at Union Square. A restored Ulysses S. Grant Memorial would be the focal point of a symmetrical and formally laid out civic square based on historical precedents.

* The Mall. Lawns and elm trees would be improved and protected. Compacted soils would be removed and replaced with engineered soils capable of better withstanding intensive use. Additional scientific study would be undertaken to examine the health of the elm trees and soil conditions on the Mall, and to identify appropriate levels of use and protection.

Washington Monument and Grounds

* A new multipurpose facility on the Washington Monument grounds on the northwest corner of 15th Street and Independence Avenue would offer food service, retail, information, education, integrated exhibits, restrooms, and performance space. This pleasant location below the level of roads would allow a facility to be oriented to views of the monument and would help muffle traffic noise. The landscaping plan for the Washington Monument Grounds approved in 2003 would be updated and implemented. Views of the monument and the north-south vista between the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the White House would be protected and improved.

West Potomac Park (North of Independence Avenue)

* Constitution Gardens. Constitution Gardens would be a restful, high-quality, multipurpose visitor destination that would provide food service and opportunities for entertainment and enjoyment, as well as a place to relax as visitors tour the National Mall. The lake would be rebuilt to be self-sustainable, with potentially a nonpotable, sustainable water source. Urban recreational activities, such as fishing or model boating, would be offered.

* Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Additional seating would be provided in the vicinity of the memorial for contemplation and rest.

* Lincoln Memorial and Grounds. Restrooms within the Lincoln Memorial would be expanded within the building footprint. A ceremonial use would be developed for the Watergate steps. An architecturally compatible restroom would be added in the vicinity of the south refreshment stand.

* Korean War Veterans Memorial. On the west side of the memorial the walks would be widened to accommodate changing circulation patterns and group visitation.

* Ash Woods. The U.S. Park Police stables would be rebuilt and the area redesigned to be compatible with the historic character and quality of the National Mall. The paddocks would be made part of the visitor experience, with educational exhibits about the Park Police and horse patrols.

West Potomac Park (South of Independence Avenue)

* Tidal Basin Area. A sense of arrival at the Tidal Basin would be created by redesigning pedestrian circulation and parking. Around the Tidal Basin high-quality recreational experiences would be provided for strolling, sightseeing, bicycling, and boating. Pedestrian lighting would be installed in a manner that would not impact the evening lighting ambience of memorials.

* Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. New visitor use patterns would be assessed, particularly after the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opens. A small food service and restroom facility could be provided near Ohio Drive, if warranted by demand.

* West Potomac Park Riverfront. Where feasible, a sustainable, vegetated shoreline would be established along the Potomac River. In other areas stone-faced walls would provide space for seating, fishing, and enjoyment of the river or perhaps nodes for water taxi service or for launching small, hand-carried watercraft (such as canoes or kayaks). Walks would be improved and additional seating provided. Bicycle lanes or trails would be developed along Ohio Drive.

* Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Grounds. The adjacent seawalls would be restored or
rehabilitated, as recommended by engineering studies. No special event stage, roof, or walls would be allowed to obstruct the view to the White House from the north plaza. The parking area south of the memorial would be redesigned to accommodate demonstrations and special events. Utilities would be provided.

For all the details, and a collection of photos, head to this site.


It is a good thing that we all are being asked to consider how the Mall in Washington DC looks, functions, and how it will look in the future.

Although many of the parks we love are distinctive because they are relatively unaffected by human manipulation, it is also true that many of the great parks have have important and beautiful designed landscapes. Parks like Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoan, Acadia and more.

In fact the idea of national parks and the idea of large restored or designed landscapes emerged at the same time, and by some of the same people. They are not (necessarily) contradictions. So, we should in particular look at what they are thinking of doing, or not doing to the Mall in Washington. It is, or at least should be, a great national space, and symbolic of the best of American urban landscapes, in the same way natural areas represent the best of wild America.

We should use this opportunity to reconsider the existing McMillan Plan, when Washington DC was redesigned to display Imperial Splendor. If you look back to the Mall before McMillan, the original Mall that began with and evolved from L'Enfant, the Mall was a graceful place, of inviting knee-high flower gardens and flowing pathways.

But in the structured linear neo-classical McMillan vision, the Mall became a box with fields hard as macadam, a miserable place for visitors whose only value is to overawe and humble the individual. Compare it to the gardens of London or Vienna or Paris: it is not necessary to have such a rigid and unfriendly place to show of beautiful architecture or give visitors a thrilling experience.

I say, go back to the original, human-centered vision of L'Enfant, and get rid of this unnatural grid of straight lines and visitors baking in the Washington summer or freezing in the windtunnel of the Washington winter. Lets have the new design, or the reclaimed L'Enfant design, by an architect, not an Imperialist!

How do you want the Mall to look like and feel like?

I don't know as much as d-2 does about competing plans for the Mall, but I do know that it is not my idea of what a great urban landscape should look like. It doesn't "flow" to my eye and reminds me of something that was cobbled together from time to time without considering what either the cobbling or what was being cobbled looked like and how it fit with what was already there. I agree with d-2 that it is as important to comment on this plan as any plan for our great wild parks. After all, this is America's mall. We need to treat it with reverence and exercise extreme care in its management.


Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide