Arts Desk

Pain in the Grass: New National Mall Regulations Force Big-Name Events Off the Lawn

Arts_folklife-1Weeknights on the National Mall once meant scattered picnickers and scheduled protests. Today, you’ll find any number of intramural league games taking shape in the heart of D.C.’s memorial core every night of the week. From soccer to ultimate Frisbee to kickball, these sports are newish uses for the country’s busiest national park, devised by monochrome-T-shirted young professionals who are turning America’s Front Yard into D.C.’s Backyard.

New rules set forth by the National Park Service and other stakeholders in January 2013 on how different groups will access the Mall’s lawn in the future have put limits on where social leagues can mount their friendlies—and where and how bigger events can make use of the space. These regulations, which prescribe where temporary structures may be erected and define how much trample the turf can take, have pitted the grassroots against the grass. While the flip-cuppers are adjusting, other organizations—from the National Book Festival to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, programs that have called the Mall their home for years and even decades—are finding it harder to adapt.

“There’s been this odd sea change that’s happened,” says Kim Stryker, founder of Save the Folklife Festival, a campaign that opposes the new rules. “The aesthetics of a wide swatch of green is now more important than any use that can happen on that lawn. The green loveliness has all of a sudden risen to the surface.”

Until Wednesday, the Folklife Festival’s future beyond 2015 looked uncertain. But, just in time for the festival’s opening ceremony, the Park Service and the Smithsonian announced an agreement that will allow the festival to remain on the Mall through 2019. The agreement is more truce than treaty: While the Folklife Festival and the Mall agreed on several new restrictions, there are more terms to be worked out. “It’s not a real compromise,” Stryker says.

The Folklife Festival is just one event whose placement is in flux, given new regulations intended to preserve the “turf,” the green along the Mall, and shift other uses to the surrounding “hardscape,” including the gravel walkways. In fact, rising costs and new logistical considerations have already displaced several events—some of them for good.

“From a taxpayer perspective, I understand it,” says the Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, a longtime member of the National Council of Negro Women and its current treasurer. She’s referring to the roughly $16 million that the federal government spent, managed by the Trust for the National Mall, building a new turf system between 3rd and 7th streets NW, the first of a three-phase process to replace the grass on the Mall with a sturdier, state-of-the-art turf system. That redevelopment effort, completed in 2012, is one reason (in addition to a change in leadership) that the NCNW decided to postpone the group’s Black Family Reunion Celebration this year: New regulations limit where vehicles may be parked and where bandstands may be erected, for example.

“The National Park Service has made an investment in the National Mall, and they are working to protect that investment,” Daughtry says.

Back in September 2009, the 24th annual Black Family Reunion happened to coincide with the Taxpayer March on Washington, the first significant Tea Party protest and an event that drew tens of thousands to the Mall (or millions, if you ask Tea Party bloggers and activists). Black Family Reunion participants called the Tea Party event racist. “They are a bad sign for democracy,” NCNW founder and civil rights activist Dorothy Height told the Washington Post.

For some, offering conservative and liberal activists a place to host events simultaneously and (kind of) peacefully is the whole purpose of the Mall. Stryker, who has personally funded the Save the Folklife Festival campaign, says that annual events, which last from days to weeks, are reason enough to carve out a permanent staging ground on the Mall—a move opposed by such bodies as the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.

“Honestly, [the Mall] already does have a dedicated hardscape. It’s called the grass,” Stryker says. “It’s always been okay, for 60 years or more. But if it takes having a permanent hardscape to have events on the Mall, then I’m all for that.”

The Folklife Festival was the pride of S. Dillon Ripley, the great former secretary of the Smithsonian and lion of the National Mall, who complained upon his arrival at the Smithsonian in 1964 about the lack of vitality on what he coined “the Forest Lawn on the Potomac.” Since 1967, the festival has brought various cultures and constituencies from around the world, from Bhutan to NASA, to the capital. This year, the festival will take up its normal post on the Mall between 7th and 14th streets NW. For 2015, the two-week festival will move east, toward the National Museum of the American Indian, as phase two of the returfing scheme will have begun on its traditional stretch.

Under the new compromise, Folklife will use more of the nonturf surfaces on and around the mall. Replacing or adapting its traditional tents and making flooring additions will require the Smithsonian to produce an extra $350,000 in funding.

The Park Service regulations call on event-holders to invest in protective flooring, tents with expensive water ballast–system anchors, and turf restoration fees, in addition to requiring shorter install and take-down times, which means higher labor costs. “We are predicting significant increased costs associated with almost all aspects of festival production due to new regulations,” says Michael Mason, the director for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. While Folklife earned a stay through 2019, those terms could change in the future.

Two major organizations have already found the exit. The Library of Congress National Book Festival, a favorite summer event for residents, will hold its next edition at the convention center at the end of August. Festival Director Jennifer Gavin has said that the new regulations would cost the event more than $1 million. Between 2002 and 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy hosted five Solar Decathlons on the Mall, erecting solar-powered, energy-efficient prototype homes designed by colleges across the nation on the Mall. But in 2013, the Solar Decathlon skipped town for Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., where it is returning next year.

“[The Department of Energy] was pleased with its decision to move off the Mall,” says Richard King, director of the Solar Decathlon, via email.

The O.C. sets a rather different symbolic stage for a pageant on resilient design than the National Mall, a destination visited by 25 million people every year. Part of the problem with events moving off the Mall is optic: While the National Book Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival could succeed elsewhere, their supporters feel like they belong to the nation. Any American who can make it to Washington deserves access to culture beyond what the Mall’s museums provide.

Yet the argument against these events—or rather, against accommodating temporary events as the Mall historically has—is optic as well. In a letter from February 2012, Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, explained his organization’s approval of the Park Service’s plan for the Mall’s reconstruction.

“The commission members emphasized that the integrity of the Mall as a continuous, green, designed landscape should not be compromised by substantial physical changes, particularly extensive pavement intended to accommodate transitory uses of high impact,” the letter reads. “Noting the scale of alterations proposed—such as doubling or tripling walk widths and replacing acres of grass with hard surfaces...They stressed that the pedestrian experience of the Mall, in all its aspects, is paramount; temporary programming should be accommodated with the understanding that some continual effort of turf restoration will always be necessary.”

There is another option: Build more Mall. The Commission on Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission, two of the dozen-plus stakeholders involved in Mall planning, would like to do exactly that in Southwest. Work there to rehabilitate a 15-block federal district under the aegis of the SW Ecodistrict Initiative would add commemorative space to an extended Mall. There’s no reason it couldn’t add grass as well.

But significant changes to the Mall—even something falling short of a new McMillan Plan—could be years or decades off. In the meantime, Daughtry is quick to stress that the National Park Service has been willing to help meet the NCNW on accommodations. This week, the Mall and Folklife made progress as well. The problem, she notes, is that the National Mall has a lot of needs. Not everyone agrees with her.

“The rules are written from the perspective of grass fundamentalists,” Stryker says. “There’s no other term for it.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally stated that the Trust for the National Mall spent $16 million on turf restoration. In actuality, the federal government spent $16 million, and the trust managed the project.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • kat

    Sounds like they're trying to make the mall a speech free zone.

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  • Lu me

    Now they restricted major events, soon will be the right to group and protest. There will be no place to free speech in the Capital of the freest country in the world.

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  • RM

    I'm a DC resident and am sick of the Mall's dirt wasteland being an embarrassment to the District. A special events space should be purpose built to handle these large festivals, not the National Mall. Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn't mean people are entitled to destroy and deteriorate public realm for everyone else.

    I have also been to many of these festivals and most of the time they are little more than a large flea market.

  • BCinDC

    Thank you, National Park Service, for getting these flea markets and touch football games off the National Mall. The Folklife Festival, in particular, is a gross misuse of a National Park - they were not intended nor designed to be propoganda sites for any nation except possibly our own, and certainly not China.

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