By Elliot Wailoo
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A dust cloud created by pickup trucks laden with construction supplies and tractors toting blew over tourists crossing The National Mall. The crowd funnelled into a fenced-off dirt pathway, peering through the fence to snap photos of distant grassy lawns beyond the sea of dirt.
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The two-year restoration of 500,000 square feet has blocked off much of The Mall’s lawn to to pedestrians, forcing visitors through the pathway at 12th Street. The project began in September 2014 and was scheduled to end in March, but according to National Parks Service spokesman Mike Litterst, it is now projected to end in January 2017 just before the presidential inauguration.
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Litterst said the main project, laying panels of turf on top of layered sod, finished August 3. The remainder of the time until the inauguration will be spent re-installing pathways, letting turf take root in sod, and letting taller grasses grow.
The NPS also installed four gigantic cisterns beneath the sod, hoping they will collect enough water to be sustainable.
Bryan Cook, a construction worker at Brightview Builders, which is involved in the ongoing project, said it’s harder for trucks to cross the pathway because of increased foot traffic and unpredictable visitors.
“There’s a lot of civilian traffic now, but public safety is still important,” Cook said. “Civilians tend to wander into construction areas unexpectedly.”
The detour can be a nuisance.
“It is a little inconvenient, especially when you can usually walk across The Mall,” said Drew Parker, 29, a visitor from North Carolina.
John Downey, a volunteer at a NPS kiosk on The Mall, said the pathway is the only route to cross within a seven-block segment.
“We used to be able to tell people they could walk across the grass, but now they’re restricted to 7th, 12th, and 14th street,” Downey said.
Channeling visitors into a narrow space created a unique business opportunity for Bobby Smith, who sells water and Gatorade on The Mall, including in the pathway.
“[Tourists] can only come one way, so that helps a lot with business,” Smith said.
“I don’t really like to walk. I like to stay stationary — I don’t have any problems with being in one place.”
Despite the inconvenience of not crossing the lawn, Steve Cherry, visiting from Oregon, was optimistic about the project’s completion.
“They’ll probably get it done just before the inauguration in January,” he said. “I came just after the last inauguration. It was pretty muddy and everything was pretty torn up.”
Parker said it is preferable for the restoration to end by January, as well as other DC renovations.
“It’s very appropriate that it should be done before the inauguration so that everything looks presentable, especially with … the restorations on the Capitol dome,” he said. They’re supposed to have that done for the inauguration as well.”
Sandra Caneca, a Portuguese tourist, said she did not mind the disruption because the restoration is better for the long run.
“It’s bad for the tourists, but in Portugal, there are many, many more renovations,” Caneca said. “For me, it doesn’t matter.”