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National Mall gets new leader to guide overhaul

The new leader responsible for the overhaul of the deteriorating National Mall, with its crumbling sidewalks and dirty water, promises visible improvements within the next year.
John Piltzecker
National Mall Superintendent John Piltzecker stands at the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the National Mall, in Washington, on Friday, Sept. 4.Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The new leader responsible for the overhaul of the deteriorating National Mall, with its crumbling sidewalks and dirty water, promises visible improvements within the next year.

It's only been a week since John Piltzecker became superintendent of America's "front yard," but the 25-year park ranger and administrator understands the public outrage over the mall's current condition. Piltzecker, 52, said he'll work to marshal both public and private money to renovate the mall, which is home to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

"This has always been a special place for me," said Piltzecker, who worked as a seasonal park ranger on the mall decades ago. "I understood that there were enormous challenges but also that there were enormous opportunities."

In the next year, he will oversee the start of a major renovation of the Lincoln Memorial grounds and reflecting pool as well as repairs to a sinking seawall in front of the Jefferson Memorial — projects totaling nearly $50 million. The projects are being funded by the federal economic stimulus package, and construction will take one to two years once work begins, officials said.

Backlog on deferred maintenance
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said this is only a downpayment on the mall's $400 million backlog on deferred maintenance.

The park service is on the verge of adopting a plan to restore the rest of Washington's monumental core.

Officials have received 30,000 comments from the public on how to improve the mall, including its grounds, bathrooms, reflecting pools and food sales.

Actual construction has been slow, though, because Congress has provided little support in recent years.

In July, an Associated Press analysis of congressional spending since 2005 found the mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for millions of dollars in extra park funds doled out by powerful lawmakers, perhaps because the District of Columbia has no vote in the House or Senate.

As problems became obvious — including the seawall visibly sinking in front of Thomas Jefferson's memorial — Congress killed a bill last year that would have funded repairs. In January, lawmakers nixed $200 million in proposed stimulus funding for the mall.

The new stimulus money driven by the Obama administration, however, will allow officials to build new walkways, lighting and security barriers around the Lincoln Memorial and repair the Jefferson seawall. The money also will help reengineer the long reflecting pool at the site of King's speech, perhaps using a circulating water system to keep it clean.

"That was an enormous jumpstart for us," said Piltzecker, the fourth person in as many years to head the National Mall. "It's a big, visible project that we will be able to tackle in a very short term."

Federal employees may contribute
Piltzecker has worked in the upper ranks of the park service, most recently as acting chief of staff at headquarters, and before that as director of an office overseeing private partnerships. Piltzecker said he welcomes help from a new nonprofit fundraising partner, the Trust for the National Mall, and other groups.

The trust recently announced the mall will participate for the first time in the federal government's Combined Federal Campaign, the world's largest annual workplace charity campaign. That will allow federal employees to donate directly from their paychecks to help restore the mall.

On Friday, a nonprofit tourism industry group will bring 300 volunteers to the mall to paint park benches and make other repairs as part of a Sept. 11 service initiative.

The mall's dead grass, crumbling sidewalks and green, smelly water in some pools has become impossible to ignore, said Bruce Beckham, executive director of the group Tourism Cares.

"Young Americans are going to look and say 'What is this all about? It doesn't look like the pictures because someone Photoshopped the green lawn,'" Beckham said. "We do have a responsibility to preserve and conserve these places."