The Long, Costly Process of Sprucing Up 'America's Front Yard'

Lauren Ober

- WAMU 88.5
It’s a sunny Sunday and Eyal Breit is playing kickball on the National Mall. The grass underfoot is a plush carpet of green. But, Breit explains, the turf’s not as forgiving as it looks.
“I fell on it last week and I hit my shoulder. I guess the ground was hard that day,” he said.
The ground may have been hard, but at least Breit landed on actual grass. Before the National Park Service installed new panels of turf between 3rd and 7th streets, most of the National Mall looked like a mess. It was a sort of dustbowl with huge sandy patches in the middle of a sea of weeds.
“There is no turf, there is no grass. It’s just weeds,” said Bob Vogel, the National Park Service’s Mall superintendent. “If there’s anything green it’s weeds. And it’s so heavily compacted that nothing could possibly grow on it.”
The architect of the federal city, Major Pierre l’Enfant, looked at the Mall as “a place of general resort” that would represent the grand experiment of “We The People.”
But weeds and sand don’t exactly represent the majesty of American democracy. So for the first time in 40 years, the Mall is getting a facelift.
“We’re in the process of over time restoring all of the panels in this nationally significant cultural landscape of the National Mall. This first panel was put in just in time for President Obama’s second inauguration,” Vogel said.
By 2018, the 1.2 miles of grass between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument will have been replaced. The second phase of the restoration, between 7th and 12th streets, is set to begin in August.
To understand how bad things got on the Mall before the makeover began, here’s a number to think about: $425 million. That’s the amount of deferred Mall maintenance that has accrued over the years, says Caroline Cunningham. She’s the president of the Trust for the National Mall, the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service.
“The entire park has been neglected. The Park Service frankly has done the best they can with the funds they receive, but they don’t have enough funding to take care of this entire park,” she said.
Cunningham points to specific problems that have persisted over the years — cracked sidewalks, dying trees, dead fish and, of course, the state of the actual grass. One of the reasons for the deterioration is that there’s nobody tasked with representing the Mall in Congress.
“Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a great, great advocate for it, but she doesn’t have a vote in Congress,” Cunningham said. “So it was neglected for about 40 years and falling apart.
Some advocates like Judy Scott Feldman see the issue as too much representation. Feldman is with the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. By her count, there are at least 17 agencies managing some aspect of the Mall. And that’s not including Congressional committees.
From Feldman’s perspective, it’s an issue of too many cooks in the kitchen. There’s no cohesive plan for the Mall because there’s no one agency or entity that’s in charge of it.
“We believe, and we’ve been saying now for 15 years, we need a new commission. Not the Park Service, not the Smithsonian, not the Capitol, not just government agencies,” Feldman said. “We need a commission of visionary thinkers, members of the public and scientists, not only who can think about the Mall as it has historically been, but what the needs are now.”
When Feldman talks about a commission, she’s referring to the McMillan Commmission, which more than a century ago created a comprehensive plan for the development of the city’s ceremonial core. Since then, agencies like the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service have built upon that document for the 21st Century. Those updates have led to the restoration and improvements that are happening now.
But not everyone is happy with the changes. New turf on the Mall means new measures to protect it. And that can be expensive for organizations holding events there. In January, the Library of Congress announced it was moving its annual book fair from the National Mall to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center because of the cost of complying with new regulations.
“Are we going to restrict the meaning of the Mall now because the grass is more important? Of course not,” Feldman said. “All people should be willing to say, on the one hand, we want to protect the landscape. But on the other hand, we must protect the meaning of the Mall as our public gathering space.”
And protecting our public gathering space means making some changes to how the Mall is used. In the future, efforts will be made to move tents for big events to hard ground and limit the amount of time they can be up. For presidential inaugurations, the Park Service will shield the turf with a protective covering. And the agency is working with local sports leagues to rotate which panels they play on to give the grass a rest.
“The care of this stretch of turf is so important to all of us as Americans because it symbolizes all that America is. So it’s much more than the Park Service keeping the grass green,” Vogel said. “It’s really preserving this iconic landscape, which is certainly one of the most significant landscapes in the world.”