Vindication for advocates calling for transparency, open data and equitable public spaces.

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“Even as the population grows, we don’t anticipate needing any more diamond fields.” Director of Department of and Recreation, Jane Rudolph acknowledged on December 9, 2019, during a not-so well advertised presentation of the Department of and Recreation’s () field utilization data and field scheduling issues. 

The content of that presentation and the Director’s statement both contradict the misleading statements that county staff have made for years; that there are insufficient fields and that field estimates, called the Level of Service (LOS), used in the Public Spaces Master Plan were valid.

In actuality, Arlington has an excess of diamond fields now and even decades from now.


Background:

In 2016, Arlington County embarked on a public process to update the 2005 Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP). It was a long 3-year process that included a significant amount of debate about whether Arlington needed more fields. 

Unfortunately, instead of a healthy debate, the process was unnecessarily contentious, due primarily to the County and PSMP coordinators’ unwillingness to provide and acknowledge basic facts. Neighbors were intentionally pit against one another using spurious Level of Service claims.

The soccer and diamond field parents came out in force, trotting their uniformed kids to county meetings, and using their significant lobbying power to get more playing fields in Arlington, in addition to a troupe of >21 year olds making the case for recreational sports leagues. 

Countering this narrative were Arlingtonians including a group of self-named Parks4Everyone who believed that there should be an equitable and balanced views of the parks for everyone’s uses and nature. They observed unutilized fields across Arlington, even in prime seasons. When communities in Four Mile Run Valley and Pentagon City asked DPR to provide usage data for planning projects, staff refused to provide any usage data. 

Seeking to understand the facts behind the issue, community members submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for DPR’s field usage data. This revealed DPR’s own data, coupled with an outside consultant reports and their own staff observation reports to “reserved” fields, concluded that DPR’s claim of having too few fields was primarily a result of Department of Parks and Recreation’s poor management and allocation of field space. 

After residents and data experts reviewed and mapped the county’s own data reports, they asked that the County step up and acknowledge the fact that it was their own poor management that had caused a public misperception of field need and millions of dollars being inappropriately allocated to CIP, maintenance and land for fields which are not actually needed. But the county refused to do so. 

Instead,

  • county staff refused to provide the data on field use as a part of the POPS process.
  • The published misleading and inaccurate comments.
  • DPR’s staff correspondence to the consultants suggested that the LOS numbers for fields were arbitrarily tweaked and even experts from the National Recreation and Parks Association commented that Arlington’s LOS numbers were inconsistent (inflated) with what they had reported for national field averages
  • staff chose not to defend their position and participate in the Civic Federation Meeting. This meeting was the only conversation in the entire POPS process addressing these issues, and instead the County Manager chose to send two county volunteers to act as surrogates to the staff who had been working on field utilization data. 

Here, the volunteer co-chair of the PSMP process and Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, Caroline Haynes continued to falsely label residents as being untruthful during the residents’ presentation of the county’s own data and even went on to say that the Level of Service (LOS) was an accurate depiction of Arlington’s supply and demand of fields, without any evidence to substantiate those claims.

After significant pressure and an abundance of the county’s own data, that could not be ignored, the Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP) was finally approved by the with Priority Actions as outlined by Parks4Everyone:

  • references and honors Arlington County’s statistically valid survey of residents’ priorities: “Ensure access to spaces that are intentionally designed to support casual, impromptu use and connection with nature.”
  • acknowledges that the heavily advocated “population-based LOS” was misused and will not be relied on for major capital project and planning decisions like fields.
  • underscores that data must be part of all park decision-making processes. Prior to the P4E efforts, the word “data” was missing from the PSMP drafts. “Analyze athletic field utilization to improve data on the current use and assess future athletic field needs.”
  • ensures equitable access to open spaces is a priority action in the guidance to County Manager on implementation and follow-up.

The follow-up; the PSMP-IAC meetings: 

In 2019, the County Manager established the Public Spaces Master Plan Implementation Advisory Committee (PSMP-IAC) to “provide guidance on the implementation of the Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP).” The IAC’s review and disclosure of field usage data only occurred after it was made a “priority action” by the County Board when they adopted the PSMP. The committee is comprised of a number of people who had openly attacked the Parks4Everyone’s position that data was needed to determine field and open space priorities in Arlington. 

At the second of the PSMP-IAC meetings on December 9, 2019, the Director of Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation, Jane Rudolph, and county staff presented and acknowledged nearly the same documentation and rationale as that which was disparaged publicly and even at the CivFed meeting. In fact the PSMP-IAC presentation was eerily similar to the data and documents that parks advocates had been using to try to gain the attention of the County Board and County Staff. 

County presentation of mismanagement of field reservations and allocation, December 2019

It showed that DPR had mismanaged their reservations and had even over-scheduled a large number of their fields by double what was actually used and needed. Slide 15 of the presentation shows that there was an over-scheduling, of unneeded hours, of an example diamond field of 469 hours in a year for a field with an annual capacity of only 900 hours. 

Furthermore as P4E advocates had also explained at the CivFed meeting and publicly elsewhere, staff echoed the same rationale for the misperception of field need at the PSMP-IAC meeting — that DPR has had a long history of mismanagement and allocation issues, “We were handing out permits for leagues to schedule their games however they want, but we weren’t really giving them permits for when they were actually using the field…”

Parks4everyone presentation of the county’s internal data and reports of their mismanagement of their fields, January 2019

And when a resident noted during the meeting that if the data showed such egregious scheduling issues, then the original Level of Service numbers would also be incorrect.

Staff jumped in quickly to try to defend the LOS numbers in the PSMP by saying that “The Level of Service was not based on allocation [scheduling data]. It’s based on different factors, but not the allocation.” 

Jane Rudolph followed up by saying, “On the diamond fields, we were showing that the LOS was neutral because we didn’t need to build any new diamond fields and that we needed less diamond time … Even as the population grows, we don’t anticipate needing more diamond fields.”

However that’s not what the PSMP actually shows. Figure 28 (below) of the PSMP shows a need for more diamond fields by 2035 and an upward arrow under “Long Term Future Needs” directly contradicting the field utilization data and the director’s statement about need.

See fourth row “Diamond fields” and column “2035”

The fact is, the reason the director can say that there is no need to add fields, is because there is actually a considerable excess of fields now (~11 excess diamond fields), and even an excess of diamond fields decades from now, even as the population grows. 

In conclusion

While it’s good that residents are vindicated after tremendous pressure for data, and equitable public spaces, arguably the winners are the residents, including sports advocates. However, this situation and the county’s poor treatment of residents who brought these departmental issues to their attention, is a sad testimony to Arlington’s ongoing lack of inclusive community engagement.

Staff and volunteers who perpetuate false narratives and elected officials who push away informed residents with evidence, incite angst and distrust among residents.

Unfortunately, the PSMP – IAC is seemingly doomed to repeat the errors of the original PSMP process. The county still has not conducted any outward public accountability and education regarding DPR’s poor facility management practices which created limited field access, the IAC meetings are not well-advertised and there are no posted meeting minutes from the past two IAC meetings.  

And what will be discussed at the up-coming Feb. 10th meeting? No one knows because the county’s webpage states, “Agenda will be posted on the PSMP-IAC website a few days before the meeting.”

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