Open space anomalies: A look at divergent views about a long-controversial issue in Alexandria

Open space anomalies: A look at divergent views about a long-controversial issue in Alexandria
Four Mile Run Park (Photo/Mark Eaton)

By Mark Eaton |

Diametrically opposed opinions about the preservation and addition of open space in the city’s 15.7 square miles show that open space is important and subjective. Whether Alexandria, known for its density, is succeeding in maintaining and creating quality and accessible public open space is in the eye of the beholder.

The city’s overall open space target of 7.3 acres per 1,000 people is not a metric that influences how residents perceive their access to quality open space. The open space target also has no bearing on whether a new commercial development provides appropriate open space.

There are anomalies or departures from expectations that contribute to the divergent views about open space:

“Open space” needs context

The term “open space” covers extensive literal and metaphorical ground. Context is essential because open space ranges from areas close to their natural state like Taylor Run, Monticello Park, Dora Kelley Nature Park and Winkler Nature Preserve to carefully tended small patches of grass. Market Square may be the city’s first example of public open space.

Open space includes public property such as the city’s approximately 130 parks which constitute about 1,000 acres of open space, property controlled by the National Park Service like Daingerfield Island and Jones Point and private property. Alexandria came late to acquiring land for parks. Land for the city’s first park was not purchased until the 1950s when much of Alexandria’s land up to the then Quaker Lane border with Fairfax County had already been developed.

Ecologist Kurt Moser, the co-founder of the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation, said that his top open space priority is preserving the city’s few natural areas.

“That’s the thing we can’t replace,” Moser said. “You could knock down a building and put a ballfield there. But you would never be able to establish a real forest there, ever. Where we have existing forests, or wetlands, meadows – we should defend those.”

Natural areas are not self- maintaining. “Natural” cannot be synonymous with “impenetrable.” Invasive species, streams, wetlands and trails or paths in natural areas all require regular attention.

Development can create open space

Casual observers might assume that the best way for the city to increase its open space inventory would be through carefully considered real estate acquisitions. This is correct, but this strategy is severely constrained by Alexandria’s expensive land. Since 2015, the city has increasingly relied on the development process to create open space.

In 2019, officials from the departments of Planning and Zoning, Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities and Transportation and Environmental Services collectively authored a planning document, “Shared Expectations for Open Space in New Development,” which has been adopted by the Planning Commission and City Council. “Shared Expectations” states:

“New development has an important role in the provision of public and public-private open space. … Private open space is a necessary and positive component of open space in new development projects. … [Above-grade open space] can be a valuable contribution to on-site open space.”

Many arguments about open space focus on the ways in which and extent to which developers are asked to contribute to the city’s stock of open space as a condition of securing necessary city approvals. Some development projects, for example, the conversion of an office building to residences, cannot dedicate property to open space because the site is already completely built out.

“Shared Expectations” states that in such a case a developer, “will be required to provide contributions (in-kind contributions or funds toward shared public open spaces such as parks)” according to criteria established in the city’s Small Area Plans.

How to count developer open space

According to the city’s website, City Council created the Open Space Steering Committee, of which Moser is a co-chair, to assist staff in the development of an open space policy plan. The OSSC is expected to recommend changes by April to the city’s open space policies, to how the city acquires open space and how developer open space contributions should be counted.

City officials have not been making up the rules as they go along for reviewing open space contributions by developers. However, defining the criteria for such contributions is not easy and the process of doing so – part of the OSSC’s work – is not complete.

Section 2-180 of the city’s Zoning Ordinance defines “open and usable space,” but it does not address the complexities involved in developer open space contributions. The ordinance says “open and usable space” is: Eight feet or more in width; unoccupied by principal or accessory buildings; unobstructed by other than recreational facilities; and not used in whole or in part as roads, alleys, emergency vehicle easement areas, driveways, maneuvering aisles or off-street parking or loading berths.

“The purpose of open and usable space is to provide areas of trees, shrubs, lawns, pathways and other natural and manmade amenities which function for the use and enjoyment of residents, visitors and other persons,” the ordinance reads.

Alexandria Planning Director Karl Moritz describes the evolution of open space as a city infrastructure priority:

“[W]e’ve become interested in the qualities of the open space provided. In the development of single-family neighborhoods (and that era is largely behind us), private open space (i.e., yards) was very much the norm and people tended to look at public open space (i.e., parks) as something government would provide. As the majority of new residential development became multifamily, planners developed rules of thumb for ensuring that the open space required by the zoning ordinance met multiple needs: the needs of the residents of the new multifamily building, the need to separate large buildings and provide light and air, the contribution of new development to shared (that is, public) open space, etc.”

Development projects are location-specific and what may work as open space for one project is not feasible for another. How, and whether, above-grade, usually rooftop, areas should count as open space has been a point of contention.

“Periodically staff would hear comments at [a] hearing that 100% of the open space provided by a new apartment building should be ground floor and accessible to the public,” Moritz said. “So, we thought it would be useful to have a discussion about the goals we have for the open space required by the zoning ordinance, and that discussion resulted in ‘shared expectations.’”

Some projects, for example, the Harris-Teeter store in North Old Town, cannot generate additional physical open space. In that instance there were developer cash contributions to improve nearby parks.

No dedicated open space funding

One of the audience questions at the Nov. 29, 2022 Agenda: Alexandria meeting was, “How much money is in the Open Space Fund?”

The Open Space Fund was created in 2003 and funded by the dedication of $.01 of the real estate tax rate. In 2007, the funding arrangement was changed to 1% of the revenue generated from real property taxes.

Former Mayor Allison Silberberg was the city’s Vice Mayor in May 2013 when City Council voted to eliminate dedicated funding for open space. Silberberg was the lone dissenting vote in a 6-1 decision.

Silberberg’s frustration with the elimination of dedicated funding for open space, and how it was done, has not diminished in the nearly 10 years since the vote. That frustration was evident in a May 30,2013 column,“A tale of two funds,” she wrote for the Alexandria Times.

“If the public had known about this possible change, then residents would have had time to respond and write [to] us, just as they did about the Warwick pool, the meters in Old Town, the schools, etc.,” Silberberg wrote in the column. “Not one email came in about these two funds because no one knew about a possible change.”

The large expenditures of $2.8 million in 2006 and $4.8 million in 2007 were for the Old Dominion Boat Club property and the expansion of Four Mile Run Park. Since 2015, the city has reduced its land acquisition expenditures for public open space.

Jack Browand, RPCA deputy director, explained at the November Agenda: Alexandria meeting that the Open Space Fund is now a Capital Improvement Program line item.

“When the city had to respond to the economic downturn, that dedicated contribution was eliminated. We still have an Open Space Fund but it is 100% funded by the city. It’s a general fund account in the capital improvement [program] and it ranges from several hundred thousand up to a million dollars per year and sometimes it’s larger. It’s part of the budget process,” Browand said.

Thus, open space land purchases compete with every other capital budget priority, including school capital funding and city facility repairs, in the CIP. The FY2022-2031 10-year CIP includes $10 million for open space.

There are several reasons for the decline in city-funded open space acquisitions in the last seven to eight years. These include the city’s 2012 financial retrenchment, increasing financial demands relating to other priorities and an assessment that the city’s overall open space goal – 7.3 acres per 1,000 people – is likely to be met for at least the near future.

Open space has also been funded by other sources. For example, Woodrow Wilson Bridge settlement funds paid for Witter Field and the Contraband and Freedmen’s Cemetery acquisitions.

Looking ahead

Two large projects at either end of the city – West End Alexandria at the former Landmark Mall site and the development at the former Mirant power plant site on the Potomac – will be particularly important to Alexandria’s open space future.

Open space is an essential part of the city’s infrastructure

for numerous reasons. According to Deputy Director of Planning & Zoning Jeff Farner.

“In a diverse city, open space is where everyone mixes. All races and ages mix there,” Farner said.

Silberberg points to open space as part of the strategy for addressing climate change, a problem which has grown worse in the almost 10 years since dedicated open space funding was ended.

“All of us need open space for all kinds of reasons,” Silberberg said.