In Search of a Livable Mall
The National Mall is in terrible shape (it's not the only one). If you don't believe me, watch this video from the Trust for the National Mall, which comes complete with sad music as it pans over cracked steps and parched plantings.
Fortunately, though, a comprehensive plan for updating the giant park is working its way through the Byzantine approval process for such things. Just yesterday, the National Parks Service released a final environmental impact statement, including hundreds of pages of side-by-side comparison of the different "alternatives" that federal projects need to have in order to prove that other ideas were considered.
The alternatives present interesting thought experiments about what the Mall could have become. The first one, "Focus on the historic landmark and education," is the most briefly outlined–perhaps because it emphasizes keeping the Mall as it historically was, and telling people about that. The second one, "focus on a welcoming national civic space for public gatherings, events, and high-use levels," involves more substantial changes. In order to handle large volumes of people, it sets out the possibility of underground parking garages, more hard surfaces for demonstrations, wider walkways, and more infrastructure for temporary events.
The third one is my favorite. Focusing on "urban open space, urban ecology, recreation, and healthy lifestyles," it calls for better recreation spaces on the Mall itself, much-improved bike networks, better lake habitat for fish and plants, and even a buried tunnel for cars under 14th Street. It envisions a place for living and recreating for reasons other than large protests or celebrating your national heritage. It's a real park, meant to attract those who've already trooped between the monuments and exercised their first amendment rights.
It's also the most expensive, running between $665 million and $705 million, which may itself take this option off the table.
The "preferred alternative," of course, is a happy marriage of all the more pointed concepts. For that reason, it's hard to argue with–all of the options involve refurbishing a national park that has undergone serious neglect. I don't see why, however, it shouldn't include as much as possible of the eco-friendly option.