A National Need

On the Mall in Washington, one of the country's foremost tourist spots, there's a wee problem when night falls

September 03, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- The most storied outdoor venue in the nation's capital has many monikers: America's Common, America's Front Green, America's Backyard. But many visitors have a more pressing question:

Where is America's bathroom?

There are places along the National Mall where you don't want to be when you've really got to go - something to consider as Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer and the last surge of visits to national landmarks.

Of the 80 public toilets and 26 urinals operated by the National Park Service - which manages the National Mall - most are west of the Washington Monument, in an area that includes the Lincoln, Jefferson and World War II memorials that were officially linked with the Mall in fall 2003 to form the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

But those restrooms are of little benefit if you're 15 blocks away at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the primary Mall area.

For years, the roughly 25 million annual visitors to the Mall have relied upon the more than 600 restrooms in adjacent facilities such as the Smithsonian Institution museums, which are open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

But in recent years, D.C. has developed a nightlife that extends citywide. And the National Mall has become a local playground: Softball games, rugby practices and flying disc tosses are regular after-work activities. Cyclists and joggers trek along the area at dawn. Family picnics last well into the evening.

Thus, many of the National Mall's annual visitors have discovered that the Smithonian's restrooms aren't available during early morning and evening hours, when the museums are closed. Portable toilets are brought in, but only for special events such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival each July and major rallies or other gatherings.

"It's time we take a look at things again. We've heard from the public," said Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan, which is overseeing landscape improvements.

The National Park Service will address complaints about the lack of toilets as it prepares for its first landscape improvements to the Mall since the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The agency polled the public last November for suggestions on its Web site and at a symposium about the Mall. Among 5,000 responses received, lack of restrooms was high on the list - along with scant parking, signs and restaurants.

Some respondents were among the 25 million annual visitors to the Mall. Many alluded to there being no restrooms on the grounds of the primary Mall area - the 600-acre, rectangular swath between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Smithsonian summer camps director Brandi Rose often notices visitors eager to enter the Smithsonian to use its restrooms before the institution closes at the end of the day.

"When I leave for work, I see security guards telling them that our bathrooms are closed," Rose said. "During the day, it's one thing, but I guess in the evening" it's a concern.

Improvements to the National Mall are not expected to be in place for another eight to 10 years, in time for the park service centennial in 2016. Spain said that even the existing restrooms near the memorials - some of which were built in the 1960s - are "reaching the end of their life."

Many of the older buildings near the Mall were built with fewer restrooms for men than women.

"I can see where restrooms would be a desirable addition to the Mall, though I wonder if upkeep would be an issue," said Matthew Lombardi, editor of Fodor's travel magazine. "From what I understand, the restrooms maintained by the NPS at the major monuments to the west of the Mall aren't always as clean as they should be."

Lombardi added that Fodor's advises its readers that there are no restrooms on the Mall, and that the nearest facilities are in the museums.

Lucy Taylor of Takoma Park visited Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum with her son, Winston, and niece, Charisa, on a recent Sunday afternoon, and insisted that the three use the restrooms there before venturing outside, because of what she called, "a lack of facilities or poor upkeep or both."

Had they missed that opportunity at the museum at Fourth and Independence streets Southwest, they would have had to go to a nearby hotel, to the Union Station train station about nine blocks away or the nearest NPS-operated restroom, at the National Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument at 15th Street Southwest.

"I can't imagine telling them we would have to walk all the way over there," Taylor said. "That's tough for kids. They don't want to be walking all over the place."

Consuella Jabali, a childcare provider from Oxon Hill, visited the National Mall on a recent weekday with nine children in her care. Even at times when the Smithsonian restrooms are open, bathroom visits can be challenging with children, she says.

"You can't let them go by themselves," she says, "and it's just far away."

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