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Inauguration ushers in new hope for National Mall

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The cascade of extraordinary scenes will officially begin Tuesday, with the nation's first inauguration of an African American president on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, in a city south of the Mason-Dixon Line, as the oath of office is sworn on Abraham Lincoln's bible.

It will pick up speed with the first family taking up residence in the White House, a home rebuilt by slave labor after being torched in the War of 1812. And, so powerful has the ongoing civil rights struggle been to the history of a country dedicated to the proposition, if not yet the functional reality, that all people are created equal, the profound succession will continue into the foreseeable future.

One event that should be especially moving is likely to unfold sometime next year. It will happen out on the National Mall, America's proverbial "front yard." Down at the edge of the Tidal Basin across from the Jefferson Memorial, President Barack Hussein Obama will, in all probability, officiate at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, in tribute to the life and legacy of the black civil rights leader assassinated in Memphis in 1968. With the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a distant backdrop, a compelling circle will close, inscribing the content of character rather than the color of skin.

As it closes, an unparalleled opportunity will simultaneously open up. With America's eyes glued to the galvanizing moment, the Obama administration should seize the chance to begin the hard and expensive work of repairing the National Mall itself. Tragically, America's front yard has gone to seed, its dilapidation over a generation chronicled with increasing regularity in the press, including The Times. The embarrassing disarray represents the larger state of the nation, and the time has come to fix it.

Deferred maintenance alone stands at an estimated $350 million -- without necessary improvements figured in. The National Mall should be a priority in the rehabilitation of America's crumbling infrastructure, a target of Obama's economic stimulus spending.

To accomplish it, the Obama administration should get behind the Third Century Initiative, a well-thought-out proposal from a D.C.-area community organization of the type the president has championed in his rise to power. Brainchild of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a savvy citizens group founded nine years ago in the controversy over the poorly conceived but since-completed World War II Memorial, the initiative was born in 2004. It languished during the Bush administration, even as the troubles mounted.

The most recent fiasco is the newly opened Capitol Visitor Center, a mammoth Mall addition that critics at the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times have bemoaned as tragically misconceived, grandiloquent and banal. Of the cultural harm wrought by the 580,000-square-foot, $620-million project, the Post's Philip Kennicott wrote: "The loss is enormous. Who knows whether the United States will ever again be rich enough, or smart enough, to undo the damage."

The initiative's goal is to bring rational planning to the incoherent, often reckless development within the capital's historic core. One blunt example of the current nonsense: The architect of the new visitor center -- arguably the most important Mall addition in generations -- wasn't chosen through a design competition, but because the firm RTKL happened to be working on perimeter-security improvements at the Capitol.

Why is the coalition's proposal a "third century" initiative? Because the Mall has undergone two prior ones -- the original, which carried it through most of the 19th century, and another that shaped the 20th century configuration now going to seed.

Designed to embody American ideals, the National Mall was laid out by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791. His plan served well until the depredations of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods took their toll.

Things got so bad, with shantytowns and railroad lines impeding on the park, that Congress finally convened the 1901-02 McMillan Commission to refurbish and expand the Mall. City Beautiful architects Charles McKim and Daniel Burnham, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and sculptor Augustus St.-Gaudens headed the all-star design team. They envisioned the green park framed by rows of elms, white classical museum buildings and the Greek- and Roman-style temples for Lincoln and Jefferson we know today.

The new initiative proposes a similar independent authority to create a plan for the next hundred years.

The dramatic design evolution from L'Enfant to McMillan is instructive. The Mall is a living work of civic art, which should grow and change along with the civil polity. Ironically, that fact partly explains the current crisis.

Six years ago, Congress debated the proliferation of requests for new monuments, memorials and museums on the increasingly cluttered Mall. A moratorium was placed on new construction. One aim was to push projects beyond the Mall's boundaries and into greater Washington, D.C. The Mall was declared "a substantially completed work of civic art."

Immediately, the Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in. Forbidden real estate directly on the Mall skyrocketed in prestige value.

In the 1970s, private organizations were first solicited as supporters for any new Mall project -- a type of privatization of public space that meant projects with financial and political backing stood a far better chance of being built than those with well-considered civic purpose. A prohibited spot on the Mall now became a coveted goal for those with pull.

That's how the mediocre World War II Memorial disastrously elbowed its way onto the grounds of the stunning Lincoln Memorial, despite legislated prohibitions against it. Even Congress' moratorium was only able to pass with notable exceptions allowed: The King memorial was grandfathered in; a gigantic Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center was added; and a pass was granted for a National Museum of African American History and Culture, now scheduled for a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument.

Next in line, a proposed museum for Latino history, carried along on the wave of burgeoning Latino political clout.

It isn't that any of these projects is unwarranted. To the contrary, each has obvious, distinctive merits; others should also be considered.

The problem is that the Mall is now hostage to shifting tides of narrow, special-interest politics. It's more a Pork Barrel Promenade than a work of civic art.

The creators of the Third Century Initiative understand this. Their report, "Rethinking the National Mall," focuses on two things: the fragmentation of current oversight and planning, in which nearly 30 agencies and committees work at cross-purposes with one another; and, the false claim that the park is -- or ever can be -- a substantially completed work of civic art, which has turned into an inadvertent chokehold. They also understand the complex accommodations necessary for a space that is both national icon and local amenity, used by 25 million tourists annually and D.C.-area residents alike.

On Tuesday, for the first time in memory, the entire two-mile stretch of the current National Mall will be open to the public for an inauguration. An expected throng of more than 2 million celebrators will encounter firsthand the dire problems of the place.

They might also see the remarkable possibilities. Let's hope the president-elect, looking back at those hopeful faces gathered in America's front yard, sees them too.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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