Opinion Your Views — 25 July 2013
Are they our parks or the city’s parks

To the editor:

Oronoco Bay Park was at its best on June 13. Despite a torrential downpour an hour before the symphony began, thousands of people — of all ages, races, income levels and beliefs — came with picnic baskets on different modes of travel to sit on the ground and have a good time.

Looking for proof? How about the big cheers, shouting kids and, later, the utter silence for this year’s incredible fireworks?

Without paying a penny or making a reservation months in advance, families and friends shared a great night together in one of Alexandria’s beautiful public parks — compliments of the residents of the City of Alexandria, whose taxes are dedicated to providing people from around the world green space to relax, walk and play. Early the next morning, the park returned to joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, exercise classes and morning strollers. The temporary stage was dismantled, so the view of the river, complete with flotillas of geese and gulls, was fully restored.

In contrast, the recent unsolicited proposal from outsiders to lease Hensley Park and construct a high-end sports complex is a violation of the fundamental principles of public space. By its very nature, as a membership and dues facility, it will lock out many of those who enjoyed Oronoco Bay Park. To characterize it as an exclusionary private use of public space is fair.

What triggered this unsolicited proposal? Perhaps it started with the city’s 2012 real estate assessment, which effectively lowered the value of public parkland by about 35 percent.

This proposal is just a straightforward market response to a good opportunity: cheap land. A similar situation is in play with the old public health complex along St. Asaph Street, where Y-12 was able to acquire that city-owned property at a price reduced 50 percent from last year.

Is the City of Alexandria, which was again awarded a AAA Moody’s rating, so desperate that it must auction off public property, like parks and city-owned buildings, at reduced prices in order to survive? Or is our praiseworthy bond rating simply a reflection of the city’s willingness to cut public services and important maintenance while accruing developer monies for a vision that remains ill defined? Leasing can bring tax revenues, but where would they be applied?

Finally, in this age of climate change, parks are valuable ways to control extreme temperatures and floods. Places around the world award funds for protecting tree canopies and expanding green space, which act as coolants for urban heat islands.

The proposed sports complex — with two Olympic pools, ice rink, and high-energy water and chemical needs — has significant environmental impacts. Even with green roofs, runoff pools and LEED certification, only a portion of the negative footprint could be mitigated.

Let’s keep our parkland publicly available to everyone regardless of ability to pay.

- Kathryn Papp
Alexandria

(Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

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