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County Strives For Open Space

New planning document recognizes the challenge of adding public green space when there is a shortage of available land in Arlington.

The Arlington County Board last week approved a new planning framework for public spaces, emphasizing the need to find creative uses for Arlington’s limited supply of available land. Also prioritized is the development of the North Tract and Four Mile Run projects and the need for new arts facilities in the county.

The 2005 Public Spaces Master Plan will guide the development of Arlington’s parks, natural resources and recreation and cultural venues over the next 10 to 20 years. It becomes one of the eight components of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and replaces the 1994 Open Space Master Plan.

The plan advocates expanding partnerships with Arlington Public Schools and the federal government to increase the amount of land available to public use, and reinforces the county government’s commitment to creating and preserving natural spaces.

“This document lays out a blueprint for how we move forward with open spaces and ensures we have adequate resources for Arlington,” said Tobin Smith, chair of the Park and Recreation Commission.

The county faces obstacles in its quest to acquire new public spaces, because of Arlington’s high population density and the exorbitant cost of land. Though the public has clamored for new community centers, athletic fields and trails, meeting all of those demands will be a challenge because of the dearth of available land in the county.

“This plan recognizes that we can’t solve all our open space needs by acquiring more land,” Smith told the board, which agreed to the plan unanimously during its Dec. 10 meeting. “We need to be innovative to optimize and maximize our usage.”

The county must work to increase the amount of green public space in the dense Rosslyn to Ballston corridor, the new plan states. This can be accomplished through the purchase of public-access easements on private land or the granting of greater density for the construction of grassy areas, officials said.

“As we develop new proposals we need to consider density options to free up space for more urban parks,” said County Board member Barbara Favola.

County officials said they would concentrate on building multi-purpose centers and turf fields rather than specific-use facilities. The new plan also promotes the implementation of new turf and lighting technology, expanding the adaptability of fields, and states that the county should consider building public spaces over I-66.

THOUGH THE 1994 Open Space Master Plan provided the first framework for how Arlington should manage its parks and public facilities, it lacked the depth necessary to dictate the community’s expanding needs.

In May 2001 the county staff and Park and Recreation Commission began to amend the plan and held a total of seven public forums. A citizen task force was instrumental in shaping the new planning document.

Over the past 10 years the county has purchased 65 acres of open space, which has resulted in the creation of six new parks. As of January 2005, Arlington County Parks owned 919 acres of land within the county.

The new plan’s No. 1 priority is for the county to complete the North Tract project, the largest capital park undertaking in Arlington’s history. Following a land swap with a private developer in July, the county now owns 30 acres of land overlooking the Potomac River, just north of Crystal City. The project is slated to include an aquatic and fitness center, four synthetic-grass athletic fields and a dedicated arts space.

“Getting access to North Tract and enhancing it is a big issue,” said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “We’re very excited about that.”

THE PUBLIC SPACES PLAN stresses the importance of restoring Four Mile Run between Barcroft Park and the Potomac. The county is partnering with Alexandria, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revitalize the stream.

The county government should strive to use adjacent land in Shirlington for cultural facilities and natural areas, the plan states. Both sides of the river in Shirlington should be designated a cultural and arts district, said Wendy Rahm, chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts. Two theaters will be housed in the new Signature Theater complex, in addition to two theaters and educational spaces at the 3806 S. Four Mile Run facility.

The Public Spaces plan calls for the county to build a cultural center in Courthouse Plaza, a top priority of many arts advocates in Arlington.

“How can we be a world-class county if we don’t have a centrally located, Metro-accessible arts center,” Rahm asked the county board last week.

Another of the new plan’s proposals is for the county to deepen its partnership with Arlington Public Schools and further share facilities. The school system currently owns 377 acres of public space across the county.