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The Battle To Remold the Mall

Preservation Proposals Spark Debate Over Protest Rights Published January 20, 2008

Reprinted from The Washington Post

The National Park Service envisions a prime venue for demonstrations: a broad space at the foot of the Capitol with restrooms, seating, a paved surface, even a stand for the media.

Attorneys for activist groups fear a designated, government-approved “pit,” limiting freedom of speech and movement in a hallowed place of protest.

The proposal to turn Union Square, the site of the Capitol reflecting pool and the Grant Memorial, into an “urban civic square” is one of many ideas the Park Service is mulling over as it plans the future of the Mall.

But that and other suggested changes have sparked harsh debate between government officials seeking to preserve one of the country’s most heavily used national parks and activists concerned about limits on free speech and civil rights.

The faceoff prompted tense exchanges at a public meeting this month and demands for the Park Service to halt its planning and seek broader public input.

“This is a sugar-coating effort to conceal the real plan, which is to reorganize the Mall from its traditional venue as the heart and soul of this country’s free-speech protest movement,” said Brian Becker, national coordinator of the antiwar ANSWER coalition.

Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan, countered: “We are not seeking to restrict First Amendment demonstrations whatsoever.”

The Park Service requires permits for most demonstrations and has “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” for them, she said. What is proposed is only a better place to protest, with more facilities, she said.

But lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which advocates for protest groups, noted that the Capitol might not always be the protesters’ target.

Demonstrators “also want to be able to protest as far back [on the Mall] as they need and as wide as they need,” she said. “They have the right to . . . not be shunted off to a protest pit.”

None of the proposals for the Mall’s future, laid out in three mix-and-match alternatives, has been adopted. The Park Service says that they are only suggestions and that it is seeking public comment.

Last week, it extended the mail and online comment period through Feb. 15.

The proposals, which Spain said were developed from prior public input, are part of the Park Service’s attempt to better manage the Mall, which has an estimated 25 million visitors a year and in many areas is worn from age and use.

The Park Service issues 3,000 permits a year for events on the Mall. About half are for “First Amendment” demonstrations. Most of those involving politics draw a few hundred people or fewer, officials said, with perhaps a dozen or so attracting more than 5,000.

The National Mall & Memorial Parks — the official name — extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and is home to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It also includes the Tidal Basin, the National World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

It has extensive maintenance problems. Many grassy areas are worn down to the bare dirt. Parts of the wall and walkway around the Tidal Basin have sunk so far that they are submerged at high tide. And the outdoor Sylvan Theater, which sits next to the Washington Monument and traces its history to 1917, looks shabby and dilapidated.

Indeed, one of the proposals is to move the Sylvan Theater, whose 1970s structure stands about 10 feet from the Washington Monument’s new security perimeter. A new location was not identified.

Another idea calls for filling in the north bay of the Tidal Basin and removing the Kutz Bridge, which carries eastbound Independence Avenue traffic over the basin.

The Kutz Bridge entered Washington lore in 1974 when a girlfriend of U.S. Rep. Wilbur D. Mills jumped from it into the water during a police stop. A stripper known professionally as “Fanne Foxe,” she was rescued unharmed, although Mills’s reputation was tarnished.

The Park Service says that the north bay has been the site of fish kills and that the narrow sidewalks along the bridge are crowded and dangerous during peak tourist season.

Other proposals call for paving the Mall’s gravel walkways and building a playground near its carousel.

Union Square, between Maryland and Pennsylvania avenues and Third and First streets NW, has been a controversial place for demonstrations. Prior to President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, protesters had to go to federal court to gain access to the site, which police had said was inside a security perimeter.

Much of the roughly 18-acre square is occupied by the large reflecting pool, which is favored by photographers but filled with dirty water and populated by seagulls. The pool was installed in the late 1960s during the creation of the Interstate 395 tunnel beneath the Capitol and has little historic value, experts say.

Some of the ideas call for removing the pool and paving the square, equipping it as a place to host protests and performances. The Park Service estimates that it could hold more than 50,000 people.

During a Jan. 12 public meeting in the Old Post Office Pavilion, Spain said large demonstrations would not be restricted from spreading across the Mall. Park Service spokesman Bill Line said later that the vast majority of demonstrations would fit tidily in Union Square.

The idea is “how do we better accommodate things, and how do we design for them” Spain said, “and also have this place look the way the American public would like the welcoming space in our nation to look.” She said the chief sentiment among 5,000 prior public comments was that the Mall does not look as good as it should. So another proposal suggests “mandatory rest periods between events” to “protect natural resources and views.”

But Verheyden-Hilliard argued that the Park Service was unfairly linking appearance and protest.

“They’re suggesting that robust political speech and use of [the Mall] . . . for political protest is somehow incongruous or in conflict with the location itself,” she said.

“Grass grows back. Free speech doesn’t.”