Politics & Government

National Mall needs multimillion-dollar face-lift

A small pavilion-like tent sitting in an unkempt lawn is used as the visitor's center for the Washington Monument.
A small pavilion-like tent sitting in an unkempt lawn is used as the visitor's center for the Washington Monument. Rafael Suanes / MCT

WASHINGTON — "America's front yard" needs a cleanup crew. Several million in cash would help, too.

From afar, the National Mall, the majestic expanse of parkland from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial looks postcard-perfect. But don't get too close.

The famous Reflecting Pool is stagnant and full of muck. The lawns are flattened in places and just patches of dust. The sidewalks are cracked, the walking paths are crumbling and public restrooms need repairs.

The seawall near the Jefferson Memorial is sinking, although the monument itself is safe.

"I don't know if any of you have been down to the Mall lately," John Akridge, who heads a Mall fundraising group, told Congress in May. "It's a disgrace. It's in a state of disrepair. The park service cannot do it alone."

The Mall will play host Friday for the annual Fourth of July fireworks display. But it needs $350 million in improvements, the National Park Service says.

That's small potatoes compared with the $6 billion the Park Service needs to tackle a backlog of repairs at nearly 400 other sites around the country.

The problem? The agency has only $12 million for maintenance.

Fixing the seawall alone could cost $20 million, spokesman Bill Line said. The work is crucial because it keeps water inside the Tidal Basin and off Jefferson's feet and the tourist-magnet Japanese cherry trees.

Line said the wall is "well over 100 years old. Nothing lasts forever."

Certainly not on the Mall, which gets a workout.

Twenty-five million visitors arrive each year. That's more than see the Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks combined.

To tourists, the problems are obvious.

"Everything is starting to look like it's getting a little weathered," said Andrew Swift of Newark, Del., who was touring with his family one recent afternoon.

But most are still wowed by the grandeur.

"No, I'm not disappointed, even though, yes, it could be cleaner," said Geri Keener, of suburban Detroit. "This has been a fantastic trip. I'm not going to go home and say, 'Guess what? Don't bother going. It's too dirty.' "

Tighter security has been a priority since 9-11. But cleanup and repair efforts also are under way.

In April, the Bush administration created a public-private project to raise $2.2 million for new signs. In June, a House Appropriations subcommittee agreed to ask for $100 million for renovations.

"We consider the Mall to be the front lawn of the nation," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, the subcommittee's ranking Republican. "It should be a jewel. But it gets a lot of traffic. There's quite a bit to do. It's going to take some time."

When Pierre L'Enfant designed the city in 1791, the Mall was key. Two centuries later, it's an eloquent statement about what the country holds dear.

Beneath its willows and elms, families and schoolchildren meander the paths. Old soldiers recall comrades lost at Anzio or Khe Sanh. Lovers hold hands in its secluded groves.

It's where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and where President Nixon made a pre-dawn visit to talk to protesters at the height of the Vietnam War.

"The Mall is no longer simply a symbolic landscape," said Judy Scott Feldman, the head of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. "It has become in our time the stage of our democracy."

Some polish is long overdue.

The folk festivals and book fairs take a toll on the grounds. A broken underground irrigation system doesn't help.

There's no official gateway, either, just a faded, temporary concessions tent with picnic tables near the Washington Monument.

"I wouldn't have even known what that is unless you get up close," Delaware tourist Gloria Swift said.

The thick layer of algae on the pools and ponds is hard to miss, however, especially the smell. The pools don't have filtration systems.

"It's yucky and mucky, but it's filled with geese and ducks," Keener said. "How can you help that?"

The to-do list is long. But unlike in the past, "there is an unprecedented level of planning going on," Line said.

Particularly woeful in a city that treasures its past is the condition of one of the oldest buildings, second only to the U.S. Capitol.

The Lock Keepers House is a small stone cabin on a shady Mall corner near the World War II Memorial. It's a vestige from the 1800s, when the city briefly relied on canals for commerce.

Now it's boarded up. Windowpanes are missing, the dull brown paint is peeling and the bushes are overgrown. In a park full of symbols, it's a monument to neglect.

"There's not another park in the world like the National Mall," said Caroline Cunningham, the president of the Trust for the National Mall, a private fundraising group. "But for a person who's been going since she was 4, it's really bad."

Related stories from McClatchy DC