By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
A proposal that would have linked extending the lease on Cameron Run Regional Park with the purchase of a historic house on Prince Street was put on hold Saturday, as city council voted to defer a decision on the plan until fall.
The 26-acre park is visited by more than 100,000 people each year. A third of those visitors are from Alexandria. The park is owned by the city but operated by the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, known as NOVA Parks, for whom the park raises about $600,000 a year. Alexandria is one of six jurisdictions to fund the authority, and pays $4.60 per resident to do so.
The current lease is set to expire in 2020, but NOVA Parks put forward a plan to link a 20- year extension with its desire to buy the historic Murray’s Livery at 517 Prince St. Executive director Paul Gilbert said the new park lease would allow NOVA Parks to get a loan to fund the purchase.
The historic home is owned by Joseph Reeder, 89, and was built in 1772. It is believed to be the most authentic and largely unaltered home in Alexandria, and contains a great deal of social history.
Gilbert said it could be owned and used by NOVA Parks for tours and other special events on a limited basis, while Reeder would live in the home tax and rent-free for the rest of his life. Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, said Reeder has been a good steward of the property, repairing the roof and installing upgraded an upgraded electrical system, a kitchen as well as an HVAC system.
NOVA Parks already owns the Carlyle House, which Gilbert said has an annual operating debt of $218,000 in addition to spending for capital improvements.
But councilors were perturbed by a lack of public engagement about the plan, about which several community members and city parks and recreation commission members said they had only been informed in the past week. Mayor Allison Silberberg said she had been led to believe that the parks and recreation commission would be consulted, and said she was disappointed to hear that was apparently not the case.
“The fact that this process came up at the last minute with no engagement, candidly, I find very disappointing,” said commission member Jesse O’Connell.
City Councilor John Chapman was among several who questioned the wisdom of tying a recreation facility with the preservation of a historic property, especially as it could present the appearance of a conflict between recreation and historic preservation.
“If we’re talking about apples here when it comes to recreation space, why would we want an orange?” he asked. “That’s what was given to us.”
Several residents questioned the future vision for the park, which currently hosts a waterpark, a mini golf course and batting cages. If the lease were renewed, the park’s uses would not be up for discussion again until 2036, something several people said was too long a wait given the paucity of athletic facilities in the city already.
“If this had happened in the east end of the city, we would have had meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting,” said former parks and recreation chairwoman Judy Noritake. “We are selling the West End short by not having an opportunity to create a vision for this park.”
Within the lease agreement, NOVA Parks pledged to provide 2,000 free waterpark passes to children enrolled at city-run summer programs. Several councilors took exception, arguing such passes should be handed to the city to distribute, including to those children involved in nonprofit-run programs like at the local Boys and Girls Club.
Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said council’s intent to use passes for economically disadvantaged youth had been relayed to the authority. Gilbert said the NOVA Parks board made the decision to limit the passes’ distribution, a statement Chapman expressed frustration at.
“I was personally offended the authority did not have enough trust in the city to get this done,” he said. “I found that to be a huge overreach.”
City Councilor Paul Smedberg, who made the motion to defer further action until fall, said it gives everyone a chance to rectify their differences and engage the public further.
“I think it’s good for all parties that we take a breath, that we move forward logically here,” he said. “I think it gives everyone an opportunity to get everything out on the table, and I think it would be a positive way to move forward. If not, this thing goes south and it potentially gets killed.”
The parks and recreation commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed lease agreement Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. Council is slated to revisit the lease agreement in fall, after it returns from its summer recess.