WASHINGTON (AP) -- Plans to overhaul neglected sites on Washington's National Mall with lakeside gardens, grassy amphitheaters and restaurants with views of the nation's memorials are getting a boost from a German carmaker.
Volkswagen of America announced a $10 million gift Thursday to the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall to jumpstart fundraising for the park. It's the largest private gift to date to restore the most-visited national park.
The National Mall sees more visitors each year than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone combined. But its more than 1,000 acres of parkland and memorials weren't designed to handle 25 million visitors a year. The mall is a two-mile expanse that runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It was designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791 to be the central axis of a national capital when Washington was still a swampland and had not yet taken shape.
Now visitors often come upon cracked sidewalks, dead grass and fetid pools of water. Government funding to maintain the mall has lagged, though economic stimulus funding did pay for some improvements.
Volkswagen of America CEO Jonathan Browning said he was shocked to see such poor conditions around the Jefferson Memorial where a sinking sea wall around the Tidal Basin has allowed regular flooding. He told The Associated Press that Washington's monuments look great from afar but that it's a different story on the ground.
"You get up close and you see the see the wrinkles and the cracks and you think, this needs some tender loving care," he said.
Volkswagen moved its U.S. headquarters to the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia in 2008. It will not receive any naming rights to spaces on the mall but will eventually be recognized with other donors in a restored historic building in the park.
Browning, who is British, said he was drawn to supporting the National Mall because it's a symbol of American culture that is open and free for all to enjoy. He said he plans to challenge other CEOs and organizations to support the mall as well.
"As somebody who's relatively new to Washington, D.C., the impression the National Mall had on me when I first arrived was very strong," he said. "When you think it's the site of the transfer of power between presidents, when you think of the right to free speech and to demonstrate, but also the right to kind of socialize and enjoy yourself, the mall, to me, is an incredible microcosm of what U.S. life represents."
Browning will join former first lady Laura Bush as a co-chair of the fundraising campaign.
At a fundraising luncheon Thursday, National Mall Superintendent Bob Vogel thanked donors and said Volkswagen's gift will help create a more functional, sustainable park. He cheered recent improvements and said there is more work to do.
"I don't often get excited about grass," Vogel said, noting recent turf enhancements where the grass had long been trampled. "Go see the grass. You will be impressed."
The Trust for the National Mall aims to raise $350 million to preserve and restore the mall. Its goal this year is to raise $38 million. Last year, the group raised $22 million, up from $5.3 million in 2011.
In June, the group will announce the selection of a specific restoration project to complete first by 2016. Organizers are comparing the costs for two projects proposed by architects through a design competition last year.
The finalists include an overhaul of the Washington Monument grounds with a new amphitheater, a wooded canopy for performances and a cafe pavilion. The Washington Monument is still closed for repairs following damage from a 2011 earthquake. Philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $7.5 million last year to help pay for repairs.
The other project would overhaul one of the mall's most neglected spaces near the Lincoln Memorial, called Constitution Gardens. It surrounds a dirty, sometimes smelly pond. Designers would recreate the water basin for model boats and ice skating, and a new glassy restaurant would overlook the park. Constitution Gardens, in particular, has been called a "failed landscape."
With either project, the changes for visitors would be dramatic, said Caroline Cunningham, president of fundraising group.
Volkswagen's gift kicks off fundraising for the first major restoration project funded by private donations.
"I think the $10 million gift really starts the ball rolling," Cunningham said. "I think it's a testament to people's interest in the National Mall and its importance to the country."
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was honored Thursday for shepherding the largest capital improvements to the mall in 40 years with stimulus funds since 2009. He said the mall is an economic engine for the District of Columbia, as well as Maryland and Virginia and should be treasured.
"The efforts that we started here will not be sustained unless we have the full support of the United States Congress," Salazar said. "Keep up the work. There's still more to be done."
Trust for the National Mall: http://www.nationalmall.org/
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