National Mall needs a facelift, and VW kicks off the rescue effort

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 3, 2013 

The National Mall in Washington D.C. is flanked by museums and full of people, both local and visitors.

TISH WELLS — McClatchy

— The nation’s front lawn needs sprucing up.

The National Mall, the monument-filled, museum-lined, two-mile centerpiece of the capital, envisioned as a Paris-like boulevard, is showing wear and tear.

Twenty-five million visitors a year takes a toll on everything from grass to upkeep to bathroom facilities.

So, with the National Park Service managing things on a tighter budget, the private sector is stepping in.

The Volkswagen Group of America on Thursday announced a gift of $10 million over five years at a gala lunch on the mall – many women wore hats – launching the Trust for the National Mall’s campaign to raise $350 million. It will be matched with federal funds to finance a $700 million plan to give capital’s celebrated landmark a facelift.

“This is a massive project in terms of renovating and improving the National Mall,” Jonathan Browning, VW America’s president and CEO, said in an interview.

And why is Browning, who is British and runs a German company, so committed to an iconic symbol of the United States?

“It is truly a global meeting place,” said Browning, who in his first weekend in Washington a few years ago was taken with the vista of the mall as he observed it from Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River.

For the automaker, making the largest single contribution to the nonprofit trust for the redesign and restoration of the mall’s Constitution Gardens and the grounds at the Washington Monument Sylvan Theater will provide payback in goodwill.

“This is not just about improving the environment and the infrastructure along the mall, it is about protecting and defending a living symbol of American democracy,” Browning told hundreds of people at the trust luncheon, held under tents on the mall. “It is about sustaining a vision with global appeal. And let’s face it – the mall needs help.”

The Lincoln Memorial anchors one end of the mall; the U.S. Capitol the other. The Washington Monument, the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and 10 museums of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art all occupy parts of the nearly 150 acres of grassy, tree-lined parkland.

Envisioned after the Revolutionary War by architect Pierre L’Enfant, the mall is the site of the city’s annual Independence Day celebration, a fireworks extravaganza that draws thousands and which will go on this summer, despite the forced federal cutbacks that have made the Park Service and Smithsonian museums scale back hiring and maintenance.

But the mall suffers from overuse.

“The mall in general has been trampled to death by millions of visitors.” said Chip Akridge, chairman of the trust and a Washington real estate developer.

Supporters are contributing money to a number of improvements, including a turf restoration project. But the trees, landscaping, walkways and curbs all need attention, as well.

“We’re building a once-in-a-generation campaign to realize the first major restoration of the National Mall in nearly 40 years,” said trust president Caroline Cunningham.

Bob Vogel, superintendent of National Malls and Memorial Parks for the Park Service, emphasized the importance of private sector support.

“No national park can do what it needs to do without friends and partners,” he said in an interview, referring to the outpouring of support, including VW’s $10 million gift. “This gift is just incredible.”

The National Park Service, a part of the Interior Department, is managing its properties with a government-wide 5 percent budget cut. For the mall, that means a reduction of $1.68 million in its budget through Oct. 1.

“This is the most visited national park in the system,” said Joe Fogg, a trust director. “It’s a national disgrace. We’re fixing it.”

The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a nonprofit grassroots group, has a long-term vision for expanding the mall, which includes an underground parking garage in front of the Smithsonian Castle to remove the tour buses that line the mall in the summer when parking is at a premium.

Coalition president Judy Scott Feldman praised the trust for its work but wants to look forward to sustaining the mall for the next 100 years.

“The more we can get attention to the mall,” she said, “the more we can get appreciation for the long-term vision.”

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