The National Mall Faces Crises of Funding and Identity

Current needs exceed $4 billion

The question of where we are going with the National Mall — and how much Americans are willing to pay for it — is a long way from being answered. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
The question of where we are going with the National Mall — and how much Americans are willing to pay for it — is a long way from being answered. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 11, 2016 at 6:00am

Within a few days in mid-August on the National Mall, the elevator in the Washington Monument broke down for the 21st time in the past year and hundreds of fish floated to the surface of the poorly circulating pond in Constitution Gardens, just east of the Lincoln Memorial.

Aside from the smell of dead fish and the unusual sight of an egret happily feasting at the edge of the pond, most visitors to what is known as America’s front yard wouldn’t have noticed much amiss in the Mall’s grand environs.

Yet there are many cracks in the infrastructure of the National Mall, where 28 major buildings — ranging in size from a small D.C. war memorial and an old lockkeeper’s house to the sprawling White House and the majestic Capitol — have a median age of 74 years.

The new baby joining the greybeards, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, once again focuses attention on the Mall as the most important public space in the United States.

“The Mall means a lot of things to people, but to me the phrase that really sticks is it is the stage of American democracy,” says Joy M. Oakes, senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group based in Washington. “It helps remind us who we are as a nation and also suggests where we might go.”

The question of where we are going with the Mall — and how much Americans are willing to pay for it — is a long way from being answered. Since the American Society of Landscape Architects described the Mall’s deteriorating conditions as “an international embarrassment” in 2009, it has undergone a series of improvements.

Over the past decade, federal investments in capital projects on the Mall have reached about $150 million for National Park Service properties and $333 million for Smithsonian Institution museums, plus $262 million for the just-opened African American museum.

But the current needs still exceed $4 billion. A backlog of deferred maintenance projects amounts to more than $1.5 billion. The most popular spot on the Mall, the Air and Space Museum, requires a $1 billion rebuild, according to the Smithsonian. And plans for an overhaul of the Smithsonian Castle and its gardens, along with proposals for new museums and visitor amenities, would cost well over $2 billion.

The worn-out infrastructure is not surprising given that the Mall has more than 30 million visitors each year — far more than any other national park — and the number is sure to grow by millions more with the addition of the new museum. The Mall was not designed for that much usage, says John E. “Chip” Akridge III, a Washington real estate developer who founded the Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit raising private funds for Mall improvements. “The basic infrastructure — bathrooms, sidewalks — everything is undersized,” Akridge says.

The African American museum, which only came to fruition after decades of debate, lobbying and fundraising, is emblematic of the enormous challenges ahead for the Mall. Fully half of the $540 million African American museum was paid for with private donations, and Congress has signaled that future projects — even basic maintenance such as roof repairs and bathroom construction — must rely more on the private sector.

That doesn’t sit well with Judy Scott Feldman, founder and chairman of the National Mall Coalition, a group of local architects and others who have been actively campaigning for Mall improvements for more than 20 years.

“Congress needs to step in,” Feldman says. “If they don’t, it will just continue to go downhill. … The Mall is a symbol of the dysfunction of where we are right now.”

Other advocates for the Mall say Congress bears much of the blame for the current situation, which includes a $12 billion maintenance backlog throughout the entire national park system.

“The Park Service has long been making a case for more funding,” says John Garder, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association. “One challenge has been constraints of the broader Budget Control Act … and then there was the sequester,” which required across-the-board cuts at every federal agency starting in 2013.

“The Park Service has been engaging in efforts to have greater efficiencies and find cost savings, but they have been surviving on essentially bare-bones budgets,” Garder says.

Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department, says there isn’t enough appreciation for the Mall’s importance in Congress.

“Some of the people I serve with don’t see it as government’s responsibility to provide for the way we showcase our democracy,” McCollum says. “This is a place for Americans to gather for celebrations, or sometimes in great sorrow …

“I think if members of Congress went out and really listened to their constituents — all those who watch the Memorial Day concerts on TV, or the millions who are celebrating the new African-American museum — they take great pride in their Mall. This is their park where we show the world what we’re all about.”

The Park Service superintendent for the National Mall, Gay Vietzke, says so much expensive work has been delayed, such as restoring the roofs on the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, that the costs have become overwhelming, with $800 million in deferred maintenance projects. “I don’t think we can ask Congress to be the only funders when we have the sort of backlog of maintenance needs that we do, and we’ve got folks that are willing to help us,” she says.

Vietzke was referring to the Trust for the National Mall, the nonprofit made up largely of wealthy local citizens that formed a partnership with the Park Service in 2007 and set a goal of raising $350 million to help with improvements.

In nine years, however, they’ve managed to raise just $55 million, Akridge says. After expenditures for staff, office space and other support activities, about 36 percent of the money raised by the Trust, or just under $20 million, has gone to the Park Service for projects on the Mall, says Catherine Townsend, who became the Trust’s new president this year. The biggest contribution was $7.5 million that came from one donor, private equity firm owner and philanthropist David Rubenstein, for repairs to the Washington Monument after it was damaged by an earthquake in 2011, she says. Congress also provided $7.5 million.

Other Trust funds have gone into design work for renovations to Constitution Gardens and the Sylvan Theatre near the Washington Monument, equipment for the turf restoration project and new information signs for visitors, Townsend says.

Townsend acknowledges the organization had some problems in its first years. On a website where people can comment anonymously about working conditions on their jobs,, a number of current and former employees described the atmosphere at the Trust as “toxic” under Caroline Cunningham, who ran the organization from 2007-15.

“There’s a lot of back story, a lot of stuff that happened in the past, not-so-friendly stuff,” Townsend says. “I don’t think there was any malicious intent. There was only passion and drive to make this thing happen.”

A blow to the Trust’s plans came in 2011, one year after the Park Service completed a long-range plan for the Mall outlining priorities for development. At the top of the list was a plan to rebuild Union Square, the area just west of the Capitol that features a reflecting pool and a statue of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The idea was to design a shallower pool that could be drained overnight and add an expanded plaza to create a public gathering space for as many as 300,000 people.

But after Capitol Police got word of the plan, concerns were raised in Congress about security issues if large crowds gathered regularly so close to the Capitol. Late on a December night before adjournment, Congress quietly added an amendment to an omnibus spending bill that transferred control over Union Square from the Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol, and the plan was squashed. Cunningham, then the Trust president, was furious, according to Feldman. Cunningham could not be reached for comment.

Now the Trust has shifted its focus to a plan to refurbish Constitution Gardens and add visitor amenities such as a sit-down restaurant. The project, designed by an architect hired by the Trust and endorsed by the Park Service, would cost more than $100 million.

The imbroglio over Union Square points up another problem the Trust has in raising money for the Mall: It is difficult to get donations for basic maintenance projects.

“No one wants to donate to our water system, that kind of thing,” says Susan Spain, who guided the development of the Park Service’s long-range plan for the Mall that was completed in 2010. “People like sexy projects.”

“It’s really tough to raise money for maintenance. People want a project that’s uplifting, not fix the grass,” Feldman says. Her coalition has been critical of what it calls the Park Service’s lack of a vision for the National Mall, and has designed its own plan that would extend the Mall’s boundaries to the south of the Jefferson Memorial by infilling into the Potomac River. That would make room for new memorials in the future and perhaps even allow for moving the Supreme Court building to a new location at the tip of a north-south axis extending from the White House past the Washington Monument.

“If there was a plan to really do something exciting and innovative, it might be easier to raise money,” Feldman says.

The Smithsonian, which also faces a maintenance backlog of nearly $800 million, has an easier time raising private funds for its museums because of public enthusiasm for American history. As an example, last year the institution tried “crowdfunding” for the first time to raise money to restore the spacesuit that astronaut Neil Armstrong wore to walk on the moon, and which has been deteriorating on exhibit at the Air and Space Museum. Within months $720,000 was raised online, enough to also put some money into preserving another suit worn by the first American in space, Alan Shepard.

“Through the history of the Smithsonian we’ve relied on private funds,” says the Smithsonian’s acting provost, Richard Kurin. “The Smithsonian has always been a public-private institution. It started with a private donation. The first building was all private. The American Indian museum was two-thirds federal and one-third private. The African American museum is 50-50. Public funds help leverage private money.”

In fact, the Smithsonian has already raised $1.45 billion toward a goal of obtaining $1.5 billion in private funds for its future needs. But that money doesn’t all go into capital projects. Big portions also go into research, exhibits and other Smithsonian projects, depending on how the board distributes available funds each year.

Still, even the Smithsonian has acknowledged the difficulty of raising private money for basic maintenance. In response to a 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office criticizing the Smithsonian for failing to address its maintenance needs, the institution said it had surveyed a host of museums and found that all of them had difficulty raising funds for routine projects like building renovations.

“The Smithsonian and many other public and nonprofit institutions have found that donors make gifts to institutions primarily to support programs for which they have a passion or to establish a legacy that will benefit future generations,” the Smithsonian told the GAO. “As a result, most institutions with comparable facilities maintenance and operations funding challenges have not been able to attract donors who are willing to give substantially toward repairing damaged roofs or replacing aging wiring.”

A trust conceived

When Akridge, the Trust for the National Mall founder, came to Washington in 1972 fresh from a stint in the military during the Vietnam War, former first lady Lady Bird Johnson had started her beautification effort in the city, and the National Mall was in “world class shape,” he says. Several decades later, as head and namesake of one of Washington’s biggest real estate companies, Akridge was taking early morning jogs on the Mall and noticed how run down it had become, with cracked sidewalks and hard dirt where grass used to grow.

“I put on my thinking cap and remembered Central Park was in similar condition, if not worse, when the city of New York was bankrupt and Mayor [Ed] Koch asked Bill Beinecke [a lawyer and philanthropist], ‘Can you fix this?’ And he said, ‘Sure,’ and he formed the Central Park Conservancy.” The nonprofit group, in partnership with the city, funneled more than $800 million from private donors into rebuilding a park that is now a model for urban green space.

Beinecke told Akridge how to establish a trust that could raise money for repairs on the Mall, but he says he was rebuffed when he took the plan to the park superintendent at the time. When a new superintendent came on board 10 years ago, Akridge convinced her to form a partnership with the Trust.

Akridge was invited to testify before a House committee about the Mall in 2008 and at first was told he had three minutes to speak. But after he distributed photos of the shabby conditions on the Mall, Akridge was asked questions for 20 minutes as members “kept shaking their heads looking at these pictures. They asked for a list of $10 million in projects and I sent them a list of $100 million.”
“Congress didn’t know the conditions either,” Akridge says. “They needed to be educated. Once they know, they want to help.”

Little by little, federal money was provided for projects on the Mall, including $55 million in the 2009 economic stimulus for projects like rebuilding the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, which was leaking 50 million gallons of water a year and had problems with algae growth, and shoring up the Jefferson Memorial sea walls, which were sinking into the Tidal Basin.

In the 2016 budget for the Park Service, Congress provided $11.2 million for repairs to the Mall’s ancient water pipes; $5.2 million for soil and turf improvements on the lawns between Third and 14th streets (completing a $43.3 million restoration project); and $2.5 million for improvements to the restrooms and exhibits area in the lower level of the Lincoln Memorial.

Rubenstein stepped forward again this year by donating another $18.5 million for work on the Lincoln. The Park Service says the money will go into a $25 million restoration effort over the next four years, which will include repairs to the memorial’s roof and visitors’ center.

Yet the tasks still ahead are daunting. Among them:

The Jefferson Memorial, where a chunk of limestone fell from the dome in 2014, needs a new roof and a thorough scrubbing, thanks to a buildup of what is called “biofilm” that has darkened the once-gleaming-white structure. The Park Service hasn’t done an estimate of the cost, but it is likely to be well into the millions of dollars.

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs $250 million in repairs by 2020 or it will have to be closed and turned into a pedestrian bridge, the Park Service says. The Department of Transportation has agreed to provide $90 million for the project next year, but that’s just the start.

The Air and Space Museum, which turned 40 years old this year and is the most-visited museum on the Mall, needs a complete rebuild for an estimated $1 billion, Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton told Congress in April. The Smithsonian actually considered tearing down the existing structure, where the walls made of Tennessee stone have been weakened by moisture absorption, and building a new museum, but decided instead on a seven-phase project so sections not under construction can remain open.

The Smithsonian Castle, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake, needs renovation and the Smithsonian has proposed eliminating the Enid A. Haupt Garden to the south and replacing it with walkways and open space, partly to alleviate a leakage problem in two underground museums just below. The costs are estimated at between $1 billion and $2 billion, but the project is being reconsidered after members of the National Capital Planning Commission objected to the removal of the gardens.

The Korean War Memorial suffers from too much deferred maintenance, and the memorial’s foundation is trying to raise private money to create an endowment for its upkeep and improvement. The South Korean company Samsung jump-started the effort with a $1 million donation last year.

The Columbus Fountain at Union Station, a gateway for many visitors to the Mall, has not had water flowing since 2007 because of structural problems. The Park Service is seeking grants to make an estimated $8 million worth of repairs.

Money is also being sought for other projects that could dramatically improve the Mall experience.
Ground was broken in 2012 for an underground education center near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but veterans’ groups are still trying to raise nearly $100 million for the project, which would include visitor access to personal profiles of veterans whose names are inscribed on The Wall.

The Trust has developed a plan to renovate the 38 acres of Constitution Gardens, with improvements to the pond so fish kills no longer occur and the addition of restaurants, restrooms and more visitor amenities. American Express has already donated $1 million so the old lockkeeper’s house now at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue (which was actually a canal a century ago) can be relocated into the gardens, and Volkswagen Group of America, headquartered in Northern Virginia, has donated $10 million that will likely go into the project. But total costs at the gardens are expected to be well over $100 million.

Next on the Trust’s list of priorities is reconstruction of the Sylvan Theater to better accommodate concerts and events that could attract thousands of visitors to the Washington Monument grounds. Again, the cost estimate is more than $100 million.

While Congress or some of its members support proposals for major new projects, such as a National Women’s History Museum costing between $250 million and $350 million and a National Museum of the American Latino that could cost as much as $600 million, it has made clear that the cost and future maintenance would have to be borne privately.

A memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower is also in the works. After federal expenditures of more than $60 million, protracted disputes over the design led Congress to cut off funding for all but a small memorial staff, and former Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas launched a fundraising campaign last year to jump-start the plan.

Spain, the Park Service planner, believes donors can be drawn to Mall restoration. “These are the symbols of our nation,” she says. “We ought to as a nation recognize what this means. This ought to be a no-brainer for people to say, ‘Hey, we have got to do this.’”

Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association argues there should be “a permanent funding stream from a revenue source to be determined” — possibly federal revenues from offshore drilling — to provide for maintenance in national parks.

“We have permanent funding streams for other national priorities,” he says. “When the national parks consistently poll as one of the most popular assets and federal agencies in America, and you get more than $10 in benefits for every dollar invested, there’s a strong argument that it is an investment worth making. We and other groups will be pushing for that in the next Congress.”

Garder’s colleague at the NPCA, Oakes, sees the national parks as a bellwether.

“The park system pretty much reflects in many ways where we are, and right now they’re a pretty good metaphor for the need to reinvest in infrastructure all over the country,” Oakes says.