Project aims to make Constitution Gardens worthy of its name

Dylan Brown

- Greenwire
Since the days when someone actually collected canal tolls at the Lockkeeper's House, the ecology at what is now Constitution Gardens has changed drastically: from canal to open sewer and now dry land.
Nearly 200 years after the two-story stone house was built, the National Mall's oldest building is boarded up and the 52-acre park it overlooks is a shadow of the pastoral oasis it was supposed to be.
To restore the "living tribute" to the Constitution, the National Park Service and its nonprofit partner, the Trust for the National Mall, are holding a meeting today to get the public's feedback on two options for renovating the gardens, outlined in a 2010 plan to refurbish the National Mall. The meeting will start at 5 p.m. at Washington's Ronald Reagan Building.
To create a functional ecology at Constitution Gardens, the Park Service and trust are proposing a pair of slightly different remediation options that would address environmental concerns, build a new visitor center and repair aging walkways.
Teresa Durkin, senior project director for the trust, said the pond and trees in Constitution Gardens have languished since the park was officially dedicated as part of the country's bicentennial celebration in May 1976. That's because the park sits atop poorly formed soils, added when the canal that once ran along Constitution Avenue was filled in as trains rendered canals obsolete and the waterway was gradually turning into a sewer.
"The soil is practically nonexistent," Durkin said. "They planted thousands of trees in 1975, and many of them have died and many of them still living are not thriving" as rainfall saturates poorly draining earth.
Like the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool it parallels, the Constitution Gardens pond -- only a foot deep and cement-bottomed -- has suffered from poor ecological design. Durkin said summer heat kills off fish and trash litters the shallow basin.
In addition to the sad state of the Lockkeeper's House, the gardens' walkways are dilapidated, and there's no visitor center at the park's eastern border.
Both renovation options would require two phases. The first would be the relocation of the Lockkeeper's House, which sits precariously close to traffic, to either of two slightly different locations, and its renovation. The 5 acres around the house would also be replanted with native species. Durkin said the plan is to have that phase completed by 2016, just in time to celebrate the Park Service's 100th anniversary.
"That's the driver of schedule right now," she said. "I think we can get it done."
The plans differ on what to do about the aging concession stand at the western end of the gardens. The first alternative would bulldoze the structure, and the second would adapt it for reuse.
Durkin hopes the renovated Lockkeeper's House will bring in visitors and a few extra donations before phase two takes over the park. Although Congress listed the site as a priority for renovation in its 2010 Mall plan, it hasn't allocated any money for the project. Durkin said engineers and landscape architects are looking for ways to cut down on the estimated $150 million bill, to be footed exclusively by private donations.
"You have to build the rest of it all at once because you can't build half a lake, and you wouldn't want to build a lake and not a landscape," she said.
Durkin said that after a public comment period that ends June 5 and further study, the ultimate solution to the park's environmental woes will probably be a hybrid of the two plans.
Phase two would transform the pond into a more natural body of water rimmed with aquatic and shoreline plants. It would be filled with runoff and treated gray water, not potable water, saving the Washington, D.C., system millions of gallons.
An earthen berm would be added along Constitution Avenue and revegetated, with additional seating for tourists to take in views of the Washington Monument and other sites.
The most noticeable change for the park, however, would be the construction of a pavilion at the underused eastern end of the lake. Adjacent to the part of the lake cordoned off for boating in the summer and ice skating in the winter, the pavilion would offer visitors food and retail options, as well as coveted public restrooms.
A landscape architect, Durkin hopes the site will serve as an example of restoring an urban landscape, in addition to an oasis where visitors can collect their thoughts among the gravity of the nation's monuments to war and history.
"What a great learning and teaching tool that will be for all the millions of people who come here," she said. "It's got tremendous history, it'll have a great ecology story, and it's a really important site."