By Chris Teale (Photo/City of Alexandria)
The process of revamping Alexandria’s 19 neighborhood parks took a big stride forward last month, as city council accepted a plan put forward by officials with the department of parks, recreation and cultural activities.
In 2012, the department began a process to develop a series of park improvement plans to keep up with the needs of the city as it grows. Parks are categorized based on their size and the amenities, with neighborhood parks defined as being between 0.5 and 10 acres and serving residents within a five-mile radius.
By dividing up parks in this way, which also classifies citywide parks that serve a wide area and pocket parks that mostly have one use, principal parks planner Dana Wedeles said it is easier to determine short- and long-term priorities and budget accordingly. Councilors praised the plan at their February 23 legislative meeting, having previously approved a similar roadmap for citywide parks.
“For so long, we really did neglect not only many of our pocket parks, but our main parks as well,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “That has changed over the years, thank goodness, and to actually have a plan in place now to address it logically and put all these ideas on paper, I think is really great.”
“I think this was an exemplary process, not just on this one, but the one before [for citywide parks],” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “I think each time we’re getting better and better at engaging the public on these. These are the most personal parks and the ones folks care the most about what happens there. It’s clearly ones folks get most passionate about and that affect their neighborhoods the most.”
The planning for neighborhood parks began in 2014, when the department started doing a combination of internal research and sending interns to observe what happens at each site. That fall, officials began public outreach, in part using graffiti boards at parks for residents to provide feedback. Wedeles noted in the meeting that only one board of the 17 available for public use had to be removed for obscenities.
The department then drafted plans and then took more comments from residents in spring 2015. After further revisions in the summer and an implementation strategy that included cost estimates, parks officials held a public hearing. Wedeles noted that some improvements were made based on feedback from the public comment periods.
The parks and recreation commission endorsed the plan in November 2015, and in a letter to city council dated January 22, commission chairwoman Jennifer Atkins praised both the plan and the process up to that point.
“This kind of forward-thinking planning effort both allows significant, lengthy opportunities for public involvement in discussing current and future public park needs and puts the city in a great position to be able to act quickly to take advantage of funding opportunities when they arise,” Atkins wrote. “We are very pleased with this effort and advise [council] to accept this neighborhood park improvement plan.”
The planning process found that of the 19 neighborhood parks assessed — discounting Mount Jefferson and Beverley parks, which are included in the plan, but follow a separate planning process — many need small projects. Two need complete renovations: Ewald and Powhatan parks.
Hume Springs Park in Arlandria had been slated for a complete renovation, but thanks to the work of volunteers from RunningBrooke, an organization that funds charities and programs in the city for at-risk youth, its need is not as great, according to the report.
Mayor Allison Silberberg said the Hume Springs Park project is a model of how the community can help improve parks, especially since there is a limited pot of city money available each year for projects. Wedeles said the parks improvements’ costs would total approximately $14 million if they were undertaken all at once, but those costs can be broken down and funded independently over time.
Wedeles said officials consider six factors in determining how to prioritize funding park projects: safety; community feedback and the results of needs assessments taken in 2011 and 2013; the life span of existing amenities; the potential for private funding sources; the level of impact on users; and the relationship to other nearby projects.
Wilson said he wanted to see more public-private partnerships to help fund improvements, and said the planning process should serve as a model for proposals in other city departments. City Councilor John Chapman said there are further occasions to educate the public on why parks look the way they do.
Wedeles said the plan will be used as a guide for the parks department’s recommendations for the fiscal 2018 capital improvement budget, and that officials will next meet with community groups to seek partnerships for implementation.