- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2012

Caretakers of the Mall on Thursday announced their selection of firms to give America’s backyard some much-needed improvements.

The plans call for redesigns of the Washington Monument grounds, a revitalization of Constitution Gardens and the renewal of Union Square.

The cost is expected to run about $650 million, according to officials with the Trust for the National Mall.

“A design competition isn’t just a beauty contest,” said Donald Stastny, who served as the trust’s design competition manager. “There’s a strong educational component to it. Some of the best designers were looking at problems, and we could see it through their eyes.”

For the OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi team, the problem with the Washington Monument grounds was that the location wasn’t doing the area justice — both on a practical and patriotic scale.

Michael Manfredi, a Manhattan-based architect, explained that 30 percent of the 24 million visitors to the Mall enter the city by bus and normally come through the Sylvan Theater area, near the outdoor amphitheater at the southern base of the monument.

“There’s no place to get your bearings,” Mr. Manfredi said. “We really wanted a place that can be, in a way, America’s center stage, one of the main entries and one of the big front doors to the Mall. Right now it feels like you’re slipping in the back door.”

To do that, Mr. Manfredi and fellow architect Marion Weiss are planning a redesigned amphitheater. Visitors will be able to rest on lush terrace seating or follow a tree line across a pedestrian bridge to the Tidal Basin, which is currently on the other side of traffic-heavy Independence Avenue.

A few minutes northwest of the Sylvan Theater area, Constitution Gardens will get a makeover at the hands of Peter Walker, co-designer of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Mr. Walker’s California-based firm PWP Landscape Architecture, with the help of Roger Marvel Architects, is planning a multiuse pavilion and transformation of the lake. They envision the lake being used for ice-skating, model boating and perhaps fishing.

“We’re taking all the water available — rain water, snow melt — and we’re also collecting water from buildings, we’ll take it over in the gardens, process it through the soil and plant layers for a natural system of purification. When the pond is full, we’ll use the water for irrigation.”

At the far eastern end of the Mall, at the foot of the U.S. Capitol, Union Square is also scheduled to get a facelift.

The Seattle-based firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond of New York City, are tasked with updating the link between Capitol Hill, the Mall and the rest of the city.

“One of the things we talked about a lot was that the Mall endures an incredible amount of use and abuse,” said Rodrigo Abela, a principal with the Washington state firm. The square, which includes the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, will have more “hardscape space” rather than lawn, to make the area more sustainable for when large crowds gather. A shallow pool is also planned at the site that can be drained if the space is needed for events.

The design competition included 12 teams who worked with the National Park Service and Trust for the National Mall officials to determine the best way to update the Mall’s three sites.

“Every one of these teams really stepped up and gave it their all.” Mr. Stastny said. “Not only from a professional capacity but an intellectual capacity. Each of them has a real passion for the overall project or site and they all delivered above expectation.”

The next step is a months-long process to determine costs and priorities and which project will break ground first, Mr. Stastny said. The hope is to break ground next year and finish the first project by 2016 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Park Service.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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