Group asks designers to improve National Mall

The nonprofit Trust for the National Mall is launching a design competition Thursday to seek proposals from architects and designers to overhaul three sites along the mall that have been overused and neglected because of limited funding.

The competition is focused on making the space known as America’s “front yard” one of the world’s best urban parks, organizers said. It will follow the framework of the National Park Service’s plan for the mall developed over four years and signed last November by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. At the time, he gave the mall a “C” grade for its dead grass, stagnant water and sinking seawalls along its waterways.

Caroline Cunningham, president of the nonprofit National Mall group, said the design competition would allow her to raise private funds for specific projects to improve the mall with the park service. The group already has set a goal of raising $350 million over time to improve the mall.

“It’s an exciting crossroads … designing and creating for the next 100 years is very humbling and exciting for us,” she said. “We plan to do it in a phased way so we’re not raising $350 million tomorrow but over a period of time. I think it’s very realistic.”

The design competition will focus on three specific areas:

• For Union Square, at the foot of the Capitol, designers will be asked to create a new civic square in place of the Capitol Reflecting Pool to address the wear and tear caused by millions of visitors at protests, rallies, festivals and inaugurations. A specific space for crowds to gather could ease strain on nearby trees and grass, planners have said.

• On the Washington Monument grounds, designers will devise a new space to host performances, a food facility, restrooms and other visitor services.

• Farther toward the Lincoln Memorial at Constitution Gardens, planners hope to create a “pastoral setting” with re-engineered, cleaner pools and perhaps a restaurant. Earlier plans for the mall imagined a restaurant along the pools of Constitution Gardens. But no restaurant was built, and its pools often have green, smelly water.

Donald Stastny, an architect hired to oversee the competition who also has managed design selections for the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 national memorials, said the mall presents complex design problems.

“We’re looking for innovation. We’re looking for sustainability,” he said. “We’re looking at setting the palette for the next 100 years of the mall.”

The mall is a significant challenge, he said, because it’s a civic space that must be flexible and handle 25 million visits a year, as well as provide enhanced security and infrastructure.

“But more importantly,” he said, “how can we make these things beautiful?”

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