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Finalists to redesign National Mall sites

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 11:33 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, April 5, 2012, Caroline Cunningham, President of the Trust for the National Mall, left, and Donald Stastny, an architect advising the trust, look at two of several proposed designs for overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Associated Press) In this photo taken Thursday, April 5, 2012, Caroline Cunningham, President of the Trust for the National Mall, left, and Donald Stastny, an architect advising the trust, look at two of several proposed designs for overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Lakeside gardens, dining rooms hovering over water, grassy new amphitheaters and underground pavilions at the foot of the Washington Monument have emerged as finalists in a design competition to overhaul neglected sites on the National Mall.

Designers and architects are dreaming big for a chance to improve the place sometimes called America's front yard. One vision calls for a garden "museum without walls" in part of the mall called Constitution Gardens. Another would "peel up" the landscape of the Washington Monument to reveal a theater and visitor amenities below ground.

The Associated Press had an exclusive early look at the results of a competition conducted by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. The finalists' concepts will go on display Monday through Sunday at the Smithsonian Castle and National Museum of American History.

Since last September, architects and designers have been competing for the chance to make over areas near the Capitol, Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which was once imagined as a pastoral park near the Lincoln Memorial. It has since been left as a fetid pool with crumbling edges, surrounded by broken sidewalks. Each of the designs would bring major changes, adding amenities including food options and restrooms.

  In a photo taken April 5, 2012, Donald Stastny, an architect advising the Trust for the National Mall, is surrounded by boards depicting proposed designs for the National Mall during an interview in Washington. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit group seeking to raise money and support to restore parts of the National Mall, is unveiling final design concepts for three parts of <0093>America<0092>s front yard,<0094> areas overused and neglected for years near the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which competing architects and designers seek to renew. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)rounded by boards depicting proposed designs for the National Mall during an interview in Washington. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit group seeking to raise money and support to restore parts of the National Mall, is unveiling final design concepts for three parts of <0093>America<0092>s front yard,<0094> areas overused and neglected for years near the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which competing architects and designers seek to renew. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Associated Press) In a photo taken April 5, 2012, Donald Stastny, an architect advising the Trust for the National Mall, is surrounded by boards depicting proposed designs for the National Mall during an interview in Washington. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit group seeking to raise money and support to restore parts of the National Mall, is unveiling final design concepts for three parts of <0093>America<0092>s front yard,<0094> areas overused and neglected for years near the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which competing architects and designers seek to renew. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)rounded by boards depicting proposed designs for the National Mall during an interview in Washington. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit group seeking to raise money and support to restore parts of the National Mall, is unveiling final design concepts for three parts of <0093>America<0092>s front yard,<0094> areas overused and neglected for years near the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens, which competing architects and designers seek to renew. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Associated Press)

"The face of the mall is going to change quite dramatically," said Donald Stastny, an architect hired to oversee the competition. "If you're in Constitution Gardens, it's going to be cool, as opposed to 'How did I end up in this place?'"

The nonprofit National Mall group aims to raise $350 million to help restore the mall, beginning with one of these sites. Former first lady Laura Bush joined the fundraising effort last year, and the group committed $875,000 to the design competition.

After sifting through entries from 32 teams, a jury picked four finalists for each of the three sites. Organizers are seeking public comment to help select a winner for each site in May. The group aims to build one of the designs, overhauling either Constitution Gardens or the Washington Monument grounds by 2016.

Midway through the competition, Congress voted to remove the third site from the National Park Service's property, citing security concerns. Union Square, which includes the Capitol Reflecting Pool and a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, had been envisioned as a space for demonstrations or protests, but Congress placed it under control of the Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police instead.

 This undated artist's rendering provided by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect & Paul Murdoch Architects, shows a proposed design for Constitution Gardens, one of three overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington, which architects and designers have been competing for the chance to renew. (AP Photo/Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect & Paul Murdoch Architects)  (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press) This undated artist's rendering provided by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect & Paul Murdoch Architects, shows a proposed design for Constitution Gardens, one of three overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington, which architects and designers have been competing for the chance to renew. (AP Photo/Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architect & Paul Murdoch Architects) (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

Still, a winning design for it will be sent to congressional overseers. One option calls for a new reflecting pool that would send ripples from the House and Senate sides of Congress. On the other side, a visitor could speak through a microphone to send ripples back as a symbol of public discourse.

Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, said the group will assess the costs, the mall's needs, donor interests and other construction plans to determine which project will go forward first. The group aims to complete fundraising for the project in 2014.

For the Constitution Gardens site, the design possibilities offer significant improvements. The park with a lake framed by trees was dedicated in 1976, and a memorial was added a few years later on a small island honoring the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The park was slated to have a restaurant, but funds ran out. In the past 30 years, the grounds grew shabby.

A rendering shows a proposed design for Union Square, one of three areas of Washington's National Mall that are in need of repair. Architects are submitting design ideas.     (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press) A rendering shows a proposed design for Union Square, one of three areas of Washington's National Mall that are in need of repair. Architects are submitting design ideas. (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

Designers propose glass pavilions or buildings growing out of earthen berms and performance spaces and cafes. They would open up views to the nearby Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and link the park to one of Washington's main boulevards nearby.

"So if you're standing in that area, you aren't just looking at the memorial, you're thinking about the memorial in a larger context of the city and the monuments that are around it," said Stastny, who previously managed design selections for the Oklahoma City and Flight 93 national memorials.

The designs will bring the next evolution of the mall, Stastny said, as a place that has changed significantly over the decades through war time and with the addition of new memorials.

This undated artist's rendering provided by Diller Scofidio Renfro & Hood Design shows a proposed design for the National Washington Monument grounds at Sylvan Theater, one of three overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington, which architects and designers have been competing for the chance to renew. (AP Photo/Diller Scofidio Renfro & Hood Design) NO SALES (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press) This undated artist's rendering provided by Diller Scofidio Renfro & Hood Design shows a proposed design for the National Washington Monument grounds at Sylvan Theater, one of three overused and neglected areas of the National Mall in Washington, which architects and designers have been competing for the chance to renew. (AP Photo/Diller Scofidio Renfro & Hood Design) NO SALES (Associated Press, Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press)

Stan Burgess, a retired architect who lives in Washington, walks the length of the mall each day for exercise and visited the Smithsonian on Monday to see the designs for a possible overhaul. The designs seem to "keep the spirit of the place" while adding amenities and environmental awareness, he said. Constitution Gardens in particular could use "some animation," that would come with restaurants, cafes, an ice skating rink or a basin for model boats, he said.

The Washington Monument grounds are in better shape after recent security upgrades by the National Park Service, but a theater space has been neglected for years. There are few restrooms or food options for millions of annual visitors.

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