Design finalists picked for National Mall makeover

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Local,Courtney Zott

The designs are bold: a retractable theater that could seat thousands, a looping rooftop garden above a gourmet restaurant, and an underground pavilion with a cafeteria and bookstore.

Those are just some of the features that could greet visitors to "America's Front Yard" in a few years, as the designs announced Monday will move on to the final round of the Trust for the National Mall's competition to overhaul three prominent sites. It will be the Mall's first major renovation in nearly 40 years.

In 1976, an area north of the Reflecting Pool was transformed into Constitution Gardens, a quiet getaway that is now deteriorating, and an eight-member panel of experts selected by the trust will pick the designs for its facelift, along with the Washington Monument grounds surrounding the Sylvan Theater and Union Square near the U.S. Capitol.

Some proposals:
» An amphitheater in a "grass bowl" inspired by famed 16th century architect Palladio
» A bridge over the Constitution Gardens pond
» An elevated, outdoor restaurant near the Sylvan Theater with a rooftop garden

The trust will announce the winning designs May 3.

The group plans to raise $350 million over seven years, and some of those funds will help get work started on one of the Mall projects by 2014. The trust plans to complete the projects by 2016 -- the Mall's centennial anniversary.

The trust's president, Caroline Cunningham, said cost, public input and impact of construction will all factor into its decision on which site moves forward first. The federal government must approve the final design for the Union Square project.

When the work does get started, Cunningham wants to keep visitors in mind.

"It's important to make sure the Mall [remains] open and accessible during this time," she said.

The three sites were deemed overused and neglected in a sweeping restoration blueprint developed by the National Park Service two years ago. The Trust for the National Mall began seeking architects and designers last September to improve the sites.

The trust on Monday narrowed the competition to four designs -- and four hopeful design teams -- for each site.

Meanwhile, the trust and the teams want public input. The proposals are on display at the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Castle through Sunday.

On Monday, reviews were mixed.

"I just like the concept of it [a renovation]," said Mimi Nguyen, a middle-schooler from California. "It makes it a lot more exciting." She and a group of students viewing the proposed designs at the Smithsonian agreed that the current landscape is "traditional."

But older visitors were skeptical of change.

"I just like the natural feeling of the Mall," said Kathy DePippo, who has been bringing groups of eighth-graders to the District for 11 years.

Bottom line: The changes will need to keep history in mind, said D.C. Preservation League Director Rebecca Miller.

"I think people are open to change; I just think it's dependent on how far that change is going to go," she said.

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