America's Front Yard will have less green space for sunning, picnicking and playing Frisbee as a new plan for the National Mall aims to widen the walkways and move popular events like the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival off the turf.
The plan discussed by the National Capital Planning Commission on Thursday calls for doubling to 80 feet the width of most of the gravel north-south walkways that cross the Mall. It would also cover over with gravel two, 146-foot-wide square grass panels that extend the Mall's open space north and south at the Smithsonian Metro Station. A third grass square in front of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden would also be covered.
In addition, the pathways could eventually be paved over. A feasibility study is considering all kinds of materials including gravel, track surface, stone dust, hard concrete and stone asphalt, according to the National Park Service.
The plans under consideration by the commission encompass the space between 14th and Seventh streets -- the portion of the Mall that's home to the Smithsonian's most popular museums and hosts more than 30 million visitors annually.
National Mall Superintendent Bob Vogel said the panels, which often get worn down to dirt each year, sustain the most damage from the structures erected for special events because they often stand for weeks at a time.
"Certainly we don't see any desire to tell people to stay off the grass," Vogel told The Washington Examiner. "It is the National Mall and we want people to enjoy it in that regard and we hope we'll still have continued recreational use. But hopefully through good planning, we can encourage people to use hard surfaces as much as possible."
If approved, the wider pathways would shrink the grass panels enjoyed by tourists, residents and downtown employees. The pathways would then accommodate special events structures with enough space for visitors to pass by. Even so, major events like the Folk Life Festival would be forced partially off the Mall onto Madison Drive, which parallels the south side of the Mall, according to a presentation by Jennifer Hirsch, the commission's federal preservation officer.
The overall plan for the Mall was approved in 2010 and also calls for heartier grass to be planted and low-lying granite curbs surrounding the panels. But the exact layout and design are still to be determined by the commission.
Work has already begun on rehabilitating the portion of the Mall between the Capitol Building and Seventh Street.
On Thursday, Barry Stubbs was making his first visit to the Mall.
"Currently it's pretty much a disaster area," the Georgia man said. "You can tell it's well-worn, and it could use a little upkeep."