National Mall to Get $700 Million Makeover With Help of Laura Bush

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The expansive, green backbone of America's capital city is about to get a major face-lift.

Stretching from the U.S. Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall is currently a giant swath of grass with limited event space, no restaurants, few restrooms and minimal seating space.

But after decades of neglect, the Trust for the National Mall announced today the three design contest winners that are tasked with turning "America's backyard" into, as former first lady Laura Bush said, a "beautiful gathering place," and, "vibrant legacy for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren."

"After so many decades, we need to do more than sprinkle some seed or put down some new sod," Bush said Thursday at the National Mall Benefit Luncheon. "Our capital and our country are worth us maintaining this beautiful gathering place and making it a place that will educate and unite Americans through the 21 st century and beyond."

The multi-million dollar makeover is broken up into three areas: Union Square, which includes the reflecting pool immediately in front of the Capitol building; Constitution Gardens, the little-visited park space and pond just north of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool; and Sylvan Theater, the grassy knoll surrounding the Washington Monument.

What is now just grass, trees and lampposts nestled around America's most iconic monuments is slated to soon include an amphitheater, terraced seating areas, gardens, restaurants, an ice skating rink and some serious lighting upgrades. In some areas, the entire topography of the landscape will be re-engineered to decrease traffic noise and increase sustainability and efficiency.

But don't postpone your Washington vacation just yet to see these improvements in action. The first groundbreaking is not set to begin until 2014 and the earliest ribbon cutting ceremony is still four years away.

While the Trust for the National Mall's luncheons have raised about $7 million over the past five years, the group is still hundreds of millions of dollars away from raising the amount necessary for the planned projects.

Half of the $700 million project, which includes renovations to nearly every part of the 700-acre mall, will be funded by taxpayers while the remaining $350 million will come from private donations.

That's where the former first lady comes in. As the honorary chairwoman of the Trust for the National Mall, Bush is tasked with overseeing private-sector  fundraising for the renovations, which she dubbed "thoughtful" and "innovative."

At Thursday's benefit luncheon, where 1,200 donors spent $500 per plate to support the project and hear the first lady's speech, Bush said some of her "fondest memories" of living in Washington, D.C., involved the "grand avenue" of the National Mall.

"One of our favorite things to do when we had friends from Texas visit was to take a picnic out on the lawn," Bush said from beneath a royal-wedding-style silver hat inside a lavishly decorated tent temporarily constructed near the Washington Monument for the garden-party-style event.

Bush said as first lady she would sometimes sneak out of the White House in a baseball cap and sunglasses to walk along the mall's gravel paths and try to blend in with the tourists and joggers.

"In over 200 years, the National Mall has become a unique national treasure … where history is remembered and where history is made," Bush said, "and over the last few decades, it has become a place where history is preserved."