Voters in the coming Nov. election will decide the fate of the county's plan to develop the North Tract, a 28-acre strip of abandoned industrial land near the 14th Street Bridge, into a public recreation center.
Of the $75 million requested in the parks bond that will appear on the ballot, $50 million is earmarked for the design and construction of the plan's first two phases. The remainder of the bond will fund the redevelopment of existing parks.
Plans to develop the North Tract began in early 1990s, when the county was first approached by real estate developers offering a trade. The county would get the tract at no cost in exchange for development rights on the South Tract, another strip of nearby land between Crystal City and Four Mile Run. The only condition of the deal was that the North Tract had to be used for recreation. Brian Hannigan, chairman of the Arlington County Sports Commission, said the offer presents a rare opportunity.
"This is a once in several generations chance to add and develop a significant public space which also happens to be directly across the Potomac from the monumental core of Washington," he said Thursday. "It will not only give Arlington an opportunity to provide recreational amenities but to redefine one of the more prominent gateways to Arlington county."
Phase one of the North Tract plan, according to Arlington Parks and Recreations Commission chairman Tobin Smith, is the construction of a complex that includes a 50-meter swimming pool, a deep water diving pool, a recreational pool for families and a series of synthetic grass sports fields. The complex would also house a warm water pool designed for physical therapy.
Phase two calls for the acquisition of an adjacent industrial site which is now a vacant lot. Once it is finally complete, Smith said the North Tract complex will have basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, walking trails with playgrounds, a running track and a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary. Smith said the site poses some challenges for development but the project would be a windfall for the county.
"This is a very difficult site to develop because it is near the airport," he said. "There are some height restrictions and lighting restrictions we'll have to follow because of low flying planes."
The North Tract plan is the culmination of more than 50 public meetings. Smith, who chaired the county's North Tract development task force, said controversy arose in some meetings between the many sports groups hoping to use the facility.
"The aquatics groups wanted the emphasis to be on the pools, other user groups like the soccer teams wanted the fields and those needs played a role in deciding how we would proceed," he said. "There was tremendous public input on this project. We also had neighborhood representatives from the adjacent condos and from civic associations. "
Part of the plan would require the relocation of a little-used road, The Old Jefferson Davis Highway. Not to be confused with Route 1, Old Jeff Davis, as it is commonly known, runs through a portion of the land to be developed. Construction crews, Smith said, would move the road closer to Highway 395.
The total cost of the North Tract plan is $100 million. The parks bond on the ballot would cover only half but Hannigan said the county's task force has already explored how it will generate the remainder of the funding.
"The rest will come later from a variety of sources," Hannigan said. "It could come from other bond projects. There's also some interest in partnerships with private sector. We could enter into agreements that offer the use of our facilities in exchange for funding to complete the project. The parks bond will get the project far enough along that the public will be able to see what a benefit this will be."
Some environmental concerns arose during the planning process for the site. A former industrial center, the North Tract is contaminated with lead and PCBs, a common chemical once used in manufacturing that is known to cause serious health problems. Isolating the contaminates and removing them became a large focus of the North Tract plan, according to Smith. Dean Amile, chairman of the county's environment and energy conservation commission, said much of the lead contamination on the proposed site is deep underground. It can either be removed or contained with a synthetic barrier.
"The county has filed a clean up plan with the state and they are basically waiting for the state to come back with an answer," he said. "Much of the site is probably going to be developed as a soccer field with artificial grass. What we can do is put down the barrier, plastic lining, then put more dirt on top of that and then put the field on top of that."
Amile added, "There was a junk yard there at one time. The hypothesis is that someone dumped lead-contaminated soil there. It could have happened 50 years ago, maybe more. We can't be certain."
PCB contamination was found only on the "Davis site", the adjacent land the county plans to acquire as phase two of the project. Much of the contamination is contained by asphalt covering the ground. Smith said now that the environmental studies have finished, the county knows what contaminates are where and how to manage them without exposing the public to health risks.
"Let's put it this way, we know more about the North Tract's environment than most people know about the contaminates in their own front yards," he said.
Phase one of the complex is expected to open, if voters approve the plan, by the summer of 2007.
"This is something that's going to make a lasting impact on quality of life in Arlington," Hannigan said. "The Arlington County Board deserves an enormous amount of credit for putting this project together, especially when you think about what kind of development could be going up there versus what its going to be there. “