Washington - The National Park Service envisions a prime venue for demonstrations: a broad space at the foot of the Capitol with restrooms, seating, a paved surface, even a stand for the media.Lawyers for activist groups fear a designated, government-approved "pit," limiting freedom of speech and movement in a hallowed place of protest.
The proposal to turn Union Square, the site of the Capitol reflecting pool and the Grant Memorial, into an urban civic square is one of many ideas the Park Service is mulling as it plans the future of the Mall.
But that and other suggested changes have sparked harsh debate between government officials seeking to preserve one of the country's most heavily used national parks and activists concerned about limits on free speech and civil rights.
The face-off prompted tense exchanges at a public meeting this month as well as demands for the Park Service to halt its planning and seek broader public input.
"This is a sugar-coating effort to conceal the real plan, which is to reorganize the Mall from its traditional venue as the heart and soul of this country's free-speech protest movement," said Brian Becker, national coordinator of Answer, an antiwar coalition.
Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan, countered: "We are not seeking to restrict First Amendment demonstrations whatsoever."
The Park Service requires permits for most demonstrations and has "reasonable time, place and manner restrictions" for them, she said. What is proposed is only a better place to protest, with more facilities, she said.
But lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, which advocates for protest groups, noted that the Capitol might not always be the protesters' target.
Demonstrators "also want to be able to protest as far back [on the Mall] as they need and as wide as they need," she said. "They have the right to . . . not be shunted off to a protest pit."
None of the proposals for the Mall's future, laid out in three mix-and-match alternatives, has been adopted. The Park Service says that they are only suggestions and that it is seeking public comment through Feb. 15.
The proposals, which Spain said were developed from prior public input, are part of the Park Service's attempt to better manage the Mall, which has an estimated 25 million visitors a year and in many areas is worn from age and use.
The Park Service issues 3,000 permits a year for events on the Mall. About half are for "First Amendment" demonstrations. Most of those involving politics draw a few hundred people or fewer, officials said, with perhaps a dozen or so attracting more than 5,000.
The National Mall & Memorial Parks - the official name - extend from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and are home to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Also included are the Tidal Basin, the National World War II Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
There are extensive maintenance problems. Many grassy areas are worn to bare dirt. Parts of the wall and walkway around the Tidal Basin have sunk so far that they are submerged at high tide. And the outdoor Sylvan Theater, which sits next to the Washington Monument and traces its history to 1917, looks shabby and dilapidated.
One proposal is to move the Sylvan Theater, which stands about 10 feet from the Washington Monument's new security perimeter. A new location has not been identified.
Another idea calls for filling in the north bay of the Tidal Basin and removing the Kutz Bridge, which carries eastbound traffic over the basin.
The Park Service says that the north bay has been the site of fish kills and that the narrow sidewalks along the bridge are crowded and dangerous during peak tourist season.
© 2008 Associated Press