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Inauguration ushers in new hope for National Mall

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Cluttered, badly maintained and with no clear plan for its rehabilitation, a new era may be dawning for America's 'front yard.'

January 18, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Six years ago, Congress debated the proliferation of requests for new monuments, memorials and museums on the increasingly cluttered Mall. A moratorium was placed on new construction. One aim was to push projects beyond the Mall's boundaries and into greater Washington, D.C. The Mall was declared "a substantially completed work of civic art."

Immediately, the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in. Forbidden real estate directly on the Mall skyrocketed in prestige value.

In the 1970s, private organizations were first solicited as supporters for any new Mall project -- a type of privatization of public space that meant projects with financial and political backing stood a far better chance of being built than those with well-considered civic purpose. A prohibited spot on the Mall now became a coveted goal for those with pull.

That's how the mediocre World War II Memorial disastrously elbowed its way onto the grounds of the stunning Lincoln Memorial, despite legislated prohibitions against it. Even Congress' moratorium was only able to pass with notable exceptions allowed: The King memorial was grandfathered in; a gigantic Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center was added; and a pass was granted for a National Museum of African American History and Culture, now scheduled for a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument.

Next in line, a proposed museum for Latino history, carried along on the wave of burgeoning Latino political clout.

It isn't that any of these projects is unwarranted. To the contrary, each has obvious, distinctive merits; others should also be considered.

The problem is that the Mall is now hostage to shifting tides of narrow, special-interest politics. It's more a Pork Barrel Promenade than a work of civic art.

The creators of the Third Century Initiative understand this. Their report, "Rethinking the National Mall," focuses on two things: the fragmentation of current oversight and planning, in which nearly 30 agencies and committees work at cross-purposes with one another; and, the false claim that the park is -- or ever can be -- a substantially completed work of civic art, which has turned into an inadvertent chokehold. They also understand the complex accommodations necessary for a space that is both national icon and local amenity, used by 25 million tourists annually and D.C.-area residents alike.

On Tuesday, for the first time in memory, the entire two-mile stretch of the current National Mall will be open to the public for an inauguration. An expected throng of more than 2 million celebrators will encounter firsthand the dire problems of the place.

They might also see the remarkable possibilities. Let's hope the president-elect, looking back at those hopeful faces gathered in America's front yard, sees them too.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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