WASHINGTON — It has played host to civil-rights marches, presidential inaugurations, fireworks displays and decades of picnics. But in recent years the National Mall, envisioned more than a century ago as a lush carpet of green connecting the nation’s most treasured monuments, has looked more like a West Texas dust bowl.
Now National Park Service officials are trying to teach the nearly 30 million people who gather here each year a difficult lesson: Tread softly or keep off the grass.
With the installation of exquisite, expensive new turf on a little less than half the mall, the Park Service has established strict rules that include limits on festivals and concerts, and even restrictions on when pickup softball and Frisbee games may be played.
The requirements have created an identity crisis for the mall and set off a deeper debate.
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Should the National Mall remain a utilitarian gathering place, rough and resilient and welcoming to all? Or should it be a more pristine landscape, a monument to the nation’s commitment to parks and preservation?
“It should be used, and it should be heavily used,” said Bob Vogel, the mall’s superintendent. “It’s a place where democracy is in action. But change is difficult on everyone, including us.”
The new lawn, on the portion of the mall closest to the Capitol, is part of a continuing $40 million restoration project that will eventually transform the entire length of the mall from its longtime state of weedy disrepair. The Park Service is enforcing the rules for the new portion of grass and, with exceptions, to the part of the mall that is not yet refurbished.
Festival organizers must pay for turf-friendly panels to protect the grass, event tents are subject to time limits, and stages and media towers have to adhere to strict weight-distribution rules.
A flag system similar to one used in New York’s Central Park — a red flag indicates that a field is closed for maintenance or weather — determines whether pickup softball and Frisbee games may be played. Cleats are discouraged.
Members of Congress in both parties have sent letters to Jonathan B. Jarvis, the National Park Service director, expressing concerns and raising the potential for a turf war.
“While it is important to preserve the grounds of this national treasure, we must ensure that its spirit is not diminished,” Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, wrote to Jarvis in April.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, for one, says the restrictions might jeopardize its celebration, which has been held on the mall since 1967.
The National Book Festival, on the mall for a decade, is moving to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center because event organizers could not afford the staging costs caused by the regulations.
But for many of the softball and Frisbee players who dominate the mall on spring and summer weeknights, the new rules are a small price to pay for grass fields that are soft on the knees.
“The new turf is a dream; it’s wonderful to lay out on,” said Patrick Wolfe, 29, referring to diving horizontally for a Frisbee, with little regard for the landing. “You just slide right across — it’s like a carpet.”
The mall’s trustees, who like to say the expanse has been “loved to death,” are hoping the public will adjust.
“The turf was designed for heavy use, but we have to treat it differently,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall.
The Park Service-administered National Mall and Memorial Parks encompass more than 1,000 acres between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, along with West Potomac Park and Constitution Gardens. The mall itself is the milelong stretch running from Third Street at the foot of the Capitol to 14th Street in front of the Washington Monument.
The restoration plan calls for the eight panels of grass that make up this mile — each panel is a bit larger than a city block — to be replaced and a new irrigation system installed.
In the initial phase of the plan, three panels of grass have been installed on the east side of the mall near the Capitol. The five panels in the downtrodden, more trafficked west end of the mall will be installed starting in August. The renovation is to take at least two years.
The mall’s trustees are exploring ways to help event organizers reduce some of the new costs. The trustees talked to the Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball about how to make the protective panels more affordable. (The Nationals use the panels to shield their stadium’s grass during concerts and other events.)