Today's Rally for Tomorrow's Alexandria

Today's Rally for Tomorrow's Alexandria

Second Presbyterian site lauded by citizens as perfect open space opportunity.

Open space is a waste of valuable land that can be better used for residences and economic endeavors. It does not contribute to the burgeoning economy of the town.

That was the assessment of the original surveyors plotting Alexandria in 1749. Their object was to maximize the utilization of "every square inch of land" because Alexandria was "a place that revolved around commerce. The streets of "Old Town" were laid out in a perfect grid."

Those facts are noted in the opening paragraphs of Alexandria's Open Space Plan. Today, there is a whole different attitude and it is growing, along with the city's population.

Attesting to that change were nearly 100 residents from various sections of the city who gathered last Saturday morning at the intersection of Quaker and Janneys lanes protesting the proposed development of the 6.1 acre site of the former Second Presbyterian Church.

Billed as a Community Rally to Save Historic Alexandria Open Space, it had all the earmarks of a populace groundswell dedicated to reversing the pattern of the past decade which emphasized development. It was wholeheartedly and vocally supported by two of Alexandria's newly elected Council members.

"We are going to turn this into a citywide effort. We don't want just scenery for the select few. Open space is for all the people," Councilman Andrew H. Macdonald told the cheering crowd holding their signs urging, "Don't Fill The Hill."

Macdonald also warned them, "This is not going to be cheap. In the end, we are going to have to negotiate. Land like this is going to cost a lot. But with the $2 million now in the Open Space Fund we can borrow up to $35 million."

Joining Macdonald at the rally was Councilman Ludwig P. Gaines who told the assemblage, "This is such an important issue. We need to take a hard look at city government and find a way to buy this property. Andrew and I are doing all we can to convince other Council members to join us in this effort."

That effort is to have the city purchase one of the largest plots of open space remaining in a residential area before it is subdivided and developed into building sites holding eight "McMansions." Potential developer, Elm Street Development, Inc., of McLean, purchased the site from National Capital Prebytery, Inc., when Second Presbyterian Church closed in 2002 due to a diminishing congregation.

As noted at a recent public information session on the proposed development, the previous City Council declined to buy the site from the church supposedly due to a lack of funds. "We (Council) have been told repeatedly we do not have the money to buy this property," Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper stated at that meeting.

One of the major questions posed at that meeting was how the property would be used if acquired. Pepper said, "It would have to be used." However, at Saturday's rally, Macdonald emphasized, "It should not be leveled for soccer fields. But there are many possible uses that will preserve its unique character and beauty."

Elm Street Development has agreed to donate two lots on the site, totaling approximately 48,612 square feet, to the city for open space. It has also been suggested the city attempt to buy an additional contiguous lot from the developer. This would also reduce the number of planned residences to seven.

UNDER PENDING development plans, 21 of 32 mature trees on the site would remain. According to Alexandria Planning Department estimates, approximately 41 percent of the site will remain as open space if the city fails to acquire the entire acreage.

But that does not satisfy those who want to add the entire site to Alexandria's open space inventory. "We are not going to have any Council member tell us about decisions made in back rooms," Judy Durand, an organizer of the rally and staunch open space advocate, told the crowd.

"I think the chances are excellent of acquiring this entire property," she predicted. "The number of residents in support of that are mounting everyday."

Durand noted, "The residents are overwhelmed with the brick and mortar campaign that's been going on since 1993. Development is squeezing the oxygen out of this city. And neighborhoods should not be pitted against each other. Council is the people. It does not belong to any one group."

Her admonition, not to pit one section of the city against another, was borne out by the presence of Kathleen Henry and Audikarim Sharmarke at the rally vigorously waving their signs for support to passing motorists. Both are from Arlandria.

"I'm in favor of this acquisition. We are in favor of communities helping communities," Henry said. "We need more open space in our area too, but, right now we are concentrating on getting a community center."

Macdonald said, "What I really love is that people from all over town have come out here today. This is not just a one area issue."

In living testament to preserving the site for active or passive open space were Pam Murphy, her two children, son Michael and daughter Morgan, all resting under one of the older shade trees on the property with grandmother Amy Barrington. As nearby residents, "We walk around here regularly and bring the kids. It's a great spot just to relax and enjoy," she said.

GETTING DOWN to the nitty gritty, Durand said, "There's all kinds of financing out there. For Council to say we can't afford this, the residents just don't buy it."

However, she admitted, "If the Planning Commission approves this development plan the value will definitely go up. I called the developer and the church early on and neither had any interest in selling."

The catch 22 faced by the Planning Commission in reviewing Elm Street's proposal was spelled out by Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, at earlier open space meeting. "The only way to deny a legitimate site plan is to have such denial stand up in court," she warned.

Durand exclaimed, "It's really up to the city to say stop. We need to put up a sign saying 'This city is not for sale to developers.' Council seems to have little awareness of how angry residents are. We want Council responsible to the people, not making decisions in a vacuum. We will be organized for the next election."

Buttressing Macdonald's revelation that the $2 million existing in the Open Space Fund can be used to leverage $35 million in additional monies, Gaines acknowledged, "We are having a meeting with a Northern Virginia real estate acquisition expert within the week to learn how to leverage funds with the Conservation Fund. They are nationwide."

Gaines noted, "The Open Space Plan didn't prioritize. That's what we need to do. And we are trying to make sure everyone's voice is heard. We are probably going to have to bundle the funding."

What the plan did state was, "Because all the priorities cannot be tackled simultaneously, it is suggested the city consider the following timeframe sequence as a guideline..." In that scenario was, "Begin to define a strategy that will allow the city to respond quickly to preserve "at risk" sites as open space as these become available."

It also urged, "Begin a dialogue between the Open Space Conservancy and the city's major institutional landholders to develop a strategy for conserving such land."

THE OPEN SPACE PLAN, developed under the aegis of the Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities Department, states, "As one of the most densely most populated areas in the nation .. the city must develop a strategy to respond to these conflicting pressures. There is a clear desire for additional open space for both active and passive purposes."

Fifteen Open Space goals were identified by the plan. Three of this speak directly to the Second Presbyterian property:

*Develop innovative opportunities for creating additional open space;

*Create public open space from vacant land; and

*Protect privately owned open space.

"Beginning to preserve specific properties as open space areas (as defined in the Plan) through easements, acquisition, and other means of protection," is stated as one of the city's priorities in implementing an Open Space Plan.

Addressing the funding necessities, the Plan identifies and describes potential sources and strategies. These include dedicated trusts, bonds, and public and institutional grants.

But as the Plan acknowledged, it is not that Alexandria is without open space. The city "now owns and maintains 127 parks, ranging in size from ... Fort Ward Park," at 41 acres, "to small neighborhood parks like Monticello Park ..." at 4.7 acres. The average size of neighborhood open space areas is less than 1 acre, according to the Plan.

But, "the city in essence has always been playing catch up," because "the only open space originally planned for community use ... was Market Square" and even it had an economic purpose. "Much of the open space in the original grid plan ... was intended for private use," according to the Plan.

Although, "The first parks and recreation master plan ... was adopted in 1978" it did not "address a specific open space plan."

Thus, the current Open Space Plan is "the city's first opportunity in 24 years" to accomplish that goal.

At 8,145 persons per square mile, Alexandria is more dense than either of its immediate neighbors, Arlington and Fairfax counties, according to statistics. As the 11th densest city in the nation, Alexandria offers 7.3 acres of active and passive public open space for every 1,000 residents. This has not changed since 1990.

Alexandria's population today is nearly 130,000. It is expected to reach 142,000 by 2012. In order to maintain today's ratio of 7.3 acres of open space per 1,000 residents, the city will need to acquire 100 additional acres of open space over the next 10 years. This is in addition to the 125 acres of open space acquired between 1990 and 2000.

TO ACCOMPLISH this the Plan recommended, among other actions, "Strongly consider the following properties for easements, acquisition, or other methods for open space preservation within the short term. These sites are critical to achieving the goals of the open space plan." Second on the list: Second Presbyterian Church site.