Arlington’s War Over Green Space

The county needs more schools, housing, athletic fields and parks. And all of these interests are vying for the same territory in an area where available land is scarce.

The sprayground at Virginia Highlands Park in Pentagon City. Photo courtesy of Arlington County Parks & Rec

For its part, Arlington County is developing a new Public Spaces Master Plan to provide a framework for new parkland acquisition and renovations over the short and long term. (The plan should be open for public comment this summer.) The last parks master plan, issued in 2005, is now somewhat obsolete, given that the county population has grown by 24,000 residents (8.5 percent) in the intervening 12 years.

“It’s not that we’ve been losing parkland per se,” says Jane Rudolph, director of Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “It’s that there are more people living here and more density. We’re creating a vision [with the master plan] that will help us balance people’s open-space needs with all the other needs of the county.”

However, upgrading and expanding green spaces can come at a heavy cost. In the Four Mile Run Valley near Shirlington, Parks & Rec has begun a planning process to improve the green space in the linear area along the stream, including potential upgrades and expansions of the Jennie Dean baseball diamonds, Shirlington Park and the Shirlington Dog Park, among other areas. To gather input, the county board has convened a citizens working group that includes representatives from the neighborhood and local businesses. And those citizens have had plenty to say.

One major concern is that if the county buys up private property along Four Mile Run to expand parkland, the move could drive out Arlington’s only light-industrial district, which includes school bus parking, automotive repair shops, WETA’s studios, the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) and other businesses. When the initial planning documents included the AFAC building and other businesses in a so-called “park planning area,” it set off some alarm bells.

“The message that the businesses want to get across is that every county needs industrial land to be successful, and every county needs every economic rung of the ladder represented to be successful,” says Mike Katrivanos, a member of the Four Mile Run working group and co-owner of New District Brewing Co., which opened last year on South Oakland Street.

Charlie Meng, executive director of AFAC, is a bit more direct. “Nobody’s going to move me to make way for more parkland,” he says. “I’m just going to look at them cross-eyed. You don’t kick out your food pantry!”

While Arlington County could theoretically condemn private property under eminent domain law, that’s not likely to happen, says Lisa Grandle, Arlington’s park development chief. But it is entirely possible that the county could urge property owners to sell. “That’s the question,” she says. “Should the county continue to buy property for parkland, or do we just keep what we have and build a park around it?”

Looking at the bigger picture, county residents like Shona Colglazier would like to see a more integrated balance of development versus green space. A mother of two, Colglazier was a member of the South Arlington Working Group that helped determine the location of the forthcoming elementary school next to Thomas Jefferson Middle School—which is now slated to be built on a parking lot after a proposal to put the building on existing parkland drew criticism. (Similar concerns have been raised over the potential siphoning of green space from Kenmore Middle School, one of three sites under consideration for a new public high school; and at the Wilson School, where H-B Woodlawn will be relocating.)

Colglazier contends that permits issued to developers of new multifamily properties should include a provision for community benefits that add to public space, mitigate transportation impacts and promote the social well-being of both new and existing residents. “Arlington County needs new development to increase their tax base, but they need to stop giving away our precious land without a benefit for the community at large,” she says. “With only 26 square miles, we must get the most bang for our buck.”

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