Connect Kennedy Center to the National Mall? It’s urban planners’ dream. (2024)

For decades, urban planners have envisioned rolling park land that sweeps across the expanse from the Kennedy Center to the Lincoln Memorial, along the western edge of the nation’s capital.

Families would spread picnic blankets across the grassy knolls as bikers safely pedaled down paths devoid of cars. Constitution Avenue and E Street would extend into more grand boulevards, connecting the nation’s memorials to tree-lined city blocks with sidewalk cafes in Foggy Bottom and the West End.

For the past 18 months, planners from the National Capital Planning Commission, District government and the private sector have been working on putting such visions to paper and are circulating a conceptual design to ignite discussion in hope of making such ideas come to fruition. A key goal would be to expand the National Mall to the northwest, using the Kennedy Center as a western anchor.

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Last month, the planning commission presented the idea to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, one of several entities needed for buy-in for such a monumental move. The plan would be to “deck over” the current transportation infrastructure network to create more green space and “reclaim” the area’s natural beauty, said Matthew Flis, senior urban designer with the National Capital Planning Commission.

“This urban design concept was a way to put some more ideas on a plan … to show that there is a better way for this part of the District,” Flis said.

Flis said discussions to formulate the concept began about 18 months ago. The sketches build off existing long-term plans from 2009. The concepts were conceived in collaboration with the District Office of Planning, the Kennedy Center and the National Park Service, which manages land in the proposed area.

Planners also worked with technical experts who provided recommendations. The sketches are designed more to inspire action than to provide specific, concrete plans.

“This is certainly a long-term effort. This is not something that is going to happen immediately, but as part of this design work and thinking about what is needed for this part of the District,” Flis said in an interview. “This is kind of that, ‘Keep that conversation going, keep the excitement, keep the momentum going.’”

The planners aim to create a more efficient transportation infrastructure that better connects the Foggy Bottom and West End areas, while providing more land for cultural and commemorative uses, Flis said.

Such ideas have been floated since the Kennedy Center was constructed, said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

One benefit in the latest design proposal is a land reclamation effort that would provide nearly 30 acres in rarefied real estate.

“[Commissioners] endorse the general idea,” Luebke said. “It’s one of these ideas that’s hard not to like because it does so many good things. There’s so much competition for commemorative sites on the Mall.”

The corridor includes a winding collection of freeway ramps that connect to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. Such a sweeping redesign would probably face intense scrutiny from transportation engineers and commuters alike.

The existing highway infrastructure physically separates the Kennedy Center and nearby neighborhoods from the Mall, Flis said. Officials want to preserve the traffic movements that exist today but provide improvements that are both aesthetic and practical.

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“There will need to be transportation analysis if this moves forward to the next step,” Flis said. “The transportation infrastructure is not really efficient.”

In presentations, planners and technical advisers offered key recommendations to move ahead from this preliminary phase:

  • Forming a “Cultural District Development Authority to champion the vision”;
  • Lobbying for congressional support, including a federal-led infrastructure overhaul and legislation to allow redesign of federally controlled land;
  • Designing a “grand boulevard on E Street” as part of a “new cultural district.”

The report lacks specifics on accomplishing these recommendations or a timeline for even beginning more robust discussions. But for now, planners hope the concept design will spark action.

“It’s a logical and needful step for the city to look at,” Luebke said. “But someone has to champion it. That’s the trick.”

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