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.

AFAC’s Charlie Meng is calling for the preservation of light industrial space along Four Mile Run. Photo by Michael Ventura

Where does natural land factor into all of this? Local residents want that, too.

Two years ago, plans for a second playground at Nelly Custis Park in Aurora Highlands led to the formation of Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks, a citizens group advocating for natural parkland preservation. Aside from some paved paths, picnic tables and playground equipment, Nelly Custis is almost all open space, with a nearly block-long field of grass. The Friends group had watched as the nearby Virginia Highlands Park in Pentagon City was renovated to include bigger courts and structured play areas, with no new unstructured green space to offset the loss, and they didn’t want a repeat of that scenario. After the group waged an outspoken advocacy effort that included testimony to the County Board and email campaigns, plans to add more playground equipment to the undeveloped parts of Nelly Custis Park were shelved.

“We realized we really need to be actively engaged in how our prime and limited park real estate is used, because otherwise we lose it,” the group said in a written statement. “We believe there is a fundamental lack of appreciation for the intrinsic value of natural parkland and open space.”

Studies suggest that proximity to green space has many benefits, including improved moods, increased attention spans and a greater sense of self-sufficiency. “Research shows that when children play in natural spaces, they’re far more likely to invent their own games than in more structured settings,” nature advocate Richard Louv writes in his book Vitamin N. “In fact, creativity and learning throughout life can be stimulated by more time in nature.”

Though Cindy Olson’s daughter plays ball with the Arlington Girls Softball Association, the Williamsburg mom says her family also values unstructured spaces where they can hike and walk their dog, Princess. When parks are upgraded or fenced off—as was the case in a recent renovation of Tuckahoe Park—it can feel limiting to more casual uses, she says, like the pickup kickball games her family likes to play.

Still, Olson says she doesn’t feel cut off from the outdoors. “I’ve lived in both North Arlington and South Arlington,” she says. “In both places, I’ve felt like we were lucky to have a lot of good open spaces.”

In a recent needs assessment as part of its master planning process, Parks & Rec surveyed Arlington residents and found that most want multiuse trails (87 percent) and natural open space (76 percent).

“One of the concerns we hear is that natural open space is just what’s left over,” says Caroline Haynes, chair of the county Parks and Recreation Commission. “And that’s getting chipped away. As we go through all these school expansions, that’s a problem too. We have to have trailers, which take up open space. We’re really pushing for ‘up, not out,’ [vertically vs. horizontally oriented buildings] when it comes to school development.”

Nature can’t be conjured out of thin air; it must be preserved or restored. One option that’s gaining traction involves conservation easements, voluntary legal agreements that private landowners enter into to protect their property from development. The Northern Virginia Conservation Trust—whose slogan is “saving nearby nature”—has administered easements throughout Northern Virginia, including one at the historic building owned by the Falls Church Scout Building Association in Falls Church City that borders (and, in effect, extends) existing parkland. “Both Arlington and Falls Church face pressure to maximize uses for every place inside their boundaries,” says Andrea Reese, senior land conservation specialist with the Trust. “Balancing these needs is always a challenge, but it’s worth doing.”

To solve the athletic field shortage, Arlington Soccer’s Wilt has encouraged county officials to consider alternatives like more rooftop green space—such as building a deck over the school bus parking site in Shirlington, which would allow for more play space while reducing the heat-island effect of a paved surface.

Cost, of course, is the big hurdle. (When California’s Pomona College built an NCAA-size soccer field atop a new parking garage, the project’s cost per parking space was nearly double that of an average comparable parking garage.) Features like solar-powered lights and other energy-efficient measures could offset some of the expense. “People are moving here because there are a lot of good things here,” Wilt says. “If we continue to lose ground on things like the arts, sports, etc., the desirability of being in Arlington is going to be diminished.”

Meanwhile, the tug of war over land use continues. Beth Hicks, a member of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association and mother of two (who also served on the South Arlington Working Group), says she’d like to see county officials and other stakeholders show more flexibility in their problem-solving—whether that means building more multisport fields, allowing more shared school and community space or investigating safer turf-fill technology. One dream scenario she’s envisioned is the construction of an esplanade over congested Route 1 in Crystal City, with parks and fields above and cars running underneath. If it can happen at the High Line in New York City, Hicks asks, why not here?

“This problem is not going away—it’s just not,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball’s Foti. “If we’re going to have this increase in growth as is expected, the status quo is not acceptable. We’re not talking about putting a man on the moon. We have to think of new and creative ways to solve this problem.”

Kim O’Connell lives in Aurora Highlands. Her son plays baseball and her daughter runs track, but both love roaming around parks looking for alien life forms, too.

At press time, we learned that Justin Wilt is leaving his post as ASA executive director as of July 1.

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