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Open Spaces Up for Review

Steering committee's priorities going to Council.

The Alexandria City Council is now considering priorities for open space in the city. The Open Space Steering Committee presented its report to Council in a work session on May 12.

“This is just a beginning,” said Steering Committee chair Judy Noritake. “We have a great deal of work left to do after Council decides on these priorities.”

These initial priorities were based on preservation opportunities. Selection criteria was based on Goal 2 of the Open Space plan which was adopted by Council last year. The steering committee was asked to look at open space that was privately held land near or adjacent to existing parks and trails; near or adjacent to existing schools, natural resource areas, at street endings as well as next to institutional properties with extensive open space.

Other criteria included valuable natural resources and/or potential public access; adjacent to or linking existing trails or greenways; small lots in dense urban neighborhoods for pocket parks; lands with significant trees, sloping terrain and other natural resource features.

According to the plan, the city would also look at properties with known or potential historic cultural significance; lands in areas identified in the needs assessment as those with a high need for open space; excess rights-of-way and open space and trail connections adjacent to or linking open spaces, natural areas, greenways and trails in Arlington and Fairfax counties.

According to the steering committee’s report, “the properties listed in this document are only those that seemed obvious to us for inclusion in this first iteration…We expect that this candidate list will change over time, with properties being removed for some reason and others being added.”

Noritake explained, “We live in a very urban city. Therefore, we looked at the limited amount of open space that has not been developed. We did not consider cost or really what type of open space could be developed on these parcels. Those decisions need to be considered after Council receives public input and sets priorities.

“Also, it is important to remember that open space doesn’t mean just purchasing property. We can use many mechanisms to retain open space,” she said.

THE LIST CONTAINED 10 properties considered to be high priorities for open space preservation opportunities. The immediate priorities as listed are: waterfront and Mt. Vernon trail.

“I think everyone agrees that we need to preserve what open space we can on the waterfront and develop a comprehensive plan that will allow us to link the open space we currently have,” Noritake said.

“As to the Mt. Vernon bike path, we have an excellent opportunity now that VDOT owns the Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace property to ask for an easement from the State and move our portion of the bike trail off the street,” she said.

The four priorities are: Ivor Lane/Seminary Forest connection; Clermont Cove; Monticello Park expansion and the Masonic Temple. Bill Brandon is looking into the possibility of developing a piece of property on Ivor Lane.

“I think the open space plan is very important and applaud everyone who has worked on it,” he said. “However, maintaining open space and developing pieces of this property are not mutually exclusive. There has to be a balance.”

Noritake agreed with Brandon, saying, “There are many ways to retain open space. For example, we have spoken with the folks at the Masonic Temple about the property behind the Temple that could be subdivided. They have expressed a willingness to work with us on a number of options for keeping this property as open space.

“Timing, cost, availability of public resources, location of property, opportunities for partnerships with others, engagement of the public in site selection and negotiations leading to property sale are all factors that must be considered by the City Council in reaching final decisions,” she said.

OTHER SITES that were listed as “important” include: Seminary/Beauregard, Braddock/Valley/Ridge, Lloyds Lane and Second Presbyterian.

“Decisions have already been made about Second Presbyterian,” Noritake said. “However, by working with the developer, city staff were able to meet the open space goal of keeping at least the corner as open space. We weren’t able to keep the entire property as open space but this is always going to be about compromise.”

Kerry Donley was the mayor when the open space needs assessment was conducted and the open space plan adopted. He was a member of the City Council that decided not to purchase the Second Presbyterian property when it was first available. He said, “Instead of uniting around the task force and their thoughtful work and careful deliberation, we are mired in objections about the specific task force members and times at which meetings are held,” Donley said.

“Instead of embracing the work of the task force, some of our elected leaders seem intent on playing political football with the tract of land du jour, namely the former Second Presbyterian church site. Frankly, the acquisition of this site is plainly too expensive and was previously rejected for this very reason. The city and its citizens would be better served by preserving part of the site as suggested by the Planning Commission…” he said.

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson expressed concern that no parcels for pocket parks were specifically identified in the priority list.

“This is true,” Noritake said. “However, we need to take an independent look at that issue in the upcoming year. I am sure that we can identify places where pocket parks would be appropriate if we just talk to neighborhoods and visit the less than obvious parcels of land that are scattered throughout the city.”

Vice Mayor Redella S. “Del” Pepper noted the lack of sites in the West End. “There is very little open space in the city’s West End,” she said. “What are we going to do about that?”

Noritake said that is a more complex issue. “We must work with property owners throughout the city and with neighborhoods to identify appropriate property,” she said.

To avoid just such issues as those that arose during the Second Presbyterian debate, Noritake suggested looking at church and other sites.

“Perhaps we could talk with these property owners such as we did with the Masonic Temple and ask that they agree to give the city first right of refusal should the property be sold or should subdivision be considered,” she said.

Council will hold a public hearing on the steering committee’s report on June 21. On June 22, the last legislative meeting of the fiscal year before Council’s two-month recess, Council will vote on the recommended priorities. The committee’s full report is on the city’s web site at ci.alexandria.va.us.