Folklife Festival feels squeeze from new Mall regulations

Tents are being erected for the 45th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (WTOP Photo/Adam Tuss)

WASHINGTON — Landscaping on the National Mall is no ordinary yard work, because of the Mall’s scope and its symbolic place in the American psyche.

A project set to begin in August will transform a heavily-used, unsightly section of turf into patch worthy of a golf course — and lots of events and rallies. The upgrades, however, usher in new restrictions on events and the footprints they leave behind.

“There’s no problem with people on the Mall — that’s what the grass is for,” says Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service. “The problem is when you have structures and tents on there for a long period of time; the grass can’t get sunlight or water.”

The most vocal opponents of the new rules thus far have been patrons of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The organizers say they believe the restrictions on large tents on the Mall’s grass are tantamount to an eviction notice.

The venerable festival will go on as usual this summer. After that, though, the logistics get a bit murky.

The National Park Service on Monday announced it was close to finalizing a five- year agreement with the Folklife Festival. Johnson said it “always intended” to keep the festival on the Mall.

But when the landscaping is complete, the Park Service will ask major event organizers to put only short-term tents on the grass, and move long-term tents to the hardscape, which will be expanded.

Supporters of the Folklife Festival have cried foul and set up a website dedicated to their cause.

“Due to tightening regulations by the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s future on the National Mall is imperiled as soon as Summer 2015,” an announcement advises on the home page.

A petition posted on Change.org asks for the creation of permanent event space on the National Mall.

The landscaping work will concern the turf and hardscape areas between 7th and 12th Streets. A similar project has already already been completed between 3rd and 7th Streets, to widespread praise.

The entire project — which will eventually reach to 14th Street — will cost about $40 million, a price tag the Park Service points to in defending its more- discerning approach to events.

“We want to make sure that it’s protected, that it’s healthy, but still accessible to the public,” Johnson says.

In the second phase of the restoration, the hardscape area will be expanded to accommodate tents.

Johnson maintains that it’s not a prohibition on long-term events on the Mall — just a different layout.

About 3,000 events meet on the National Mall annually.

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