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Park Service Gets Help Patching Up Mall

Correction Appended

Just as the grass on the National Mall begins its rite of summer of being savaged by Congressional softball games and festivals, House Members are renewing their focus on the park’s sad state. And they’re getting help from a few private-sector players taking matters into their own hands.

The words “embarrassing,” “disgrace” and “pasture” were alternately used by lawmakers and other officials at a hearing earlier this week to describe the expanse of federal land between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

“The National Mall is one of the nation’s best-known and most treasured sites, and it is also Washington’s most neglected and undervalued,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands on Tuesday. “The Mall lacks everything that a majestic natural wonder deserves, from an official identity to necessary amenities.”

The Interior Department’s National Park Service, which oversees the Mall, is developing a 50-year management plan for the land. NPS has received more than 20,000 public comments about the plan since 2006, and the final version is expected by the end of this year.

Among the many problems on the Mall, which has not seen a major renovation since the bicentennial year of 1976, are decrepit sidewalks, trampled turf and a lack of benches, shade, concessions and restrooms, officials said.

Funding shortages and a huge maintenance backlog at NPS have spurred a few outside players to get involved in repairs.

Foremost among them is Chip Akridge, whose real estate firm is one of the biggest in the Washington area. A Mall enthusiast, Akridge got fed up with its condition and in November launched the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, which the NPS recognized as an official fundraising partner.

Akridge has donated $250,000 from his own fortune to the trust and has committed to giving millions, and a luncheon earlier this month raised another $570,000, according to trust President Caroline Cunningham.

The trust qualified for Interior Department funding through the Centennial Challenge to repair parks in preparation for the agency’s 100th birthday in 2016, and will receive matching dollars once it raises $1.1 million in private funds.

Cunningham said that money will immediately go to replacing outdated signs and maps on the Mall with new ones that include the Vietnam War, Korean War, World War II and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials.

Norton praised Akridge for “magnificent public service” and for taking on a project that is “essentially the work of government itself, which the Park Service would do if it had the money.”

While the NPS waits for the trust to gain momentum, Norton took an intermediate step last year with the introduction of the Mall Revitalization and Redesignation Act. It would direct the NPS to make modest improvements — providing restrooms and shelter — before the full plan to revitalize the Mall takes effect.

“The 20 million visitors annually to the Mall should not have to wait for the long-term makeover of the Mall it must have before it becomes more than a mowed but battered lawn bereft of even restrooms,” Norton said. “There is no other great national park that suffers like this.”

The hearing touched on a couple of other challenges on the Mall, including safety. Mall Superintendent Peggy O’Dell said the NPS has ensured that temporary lighting is in place at spots where assaults occurred a few years ago.

Norton also panned as “radical” the NPS’ proposal to occasionally drain the Capitol Reflecting Pool and use it as a site for protests. Activist groups have complained that doing so would marginalize their protests and cast them into a “pit.”

But the focus remained on funding and maintenance. Norton said the amount of money that would be required to make the improvements called for in the Revitalization and Redesignation Act should be noncontroversial, especially when compared with the many millions it would take to restore the Mall to its deserved beauty.

“All I’m asking for is pennies,” she said.

Correction: May 22, 2008

The article incorrectly stated the contributions of real estate developer Chip Akridge. Akridge has given $250,000 to the Trust for the National Mall but has pledged to give millions more.

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