The County’s Shell Game: How to “add” more parks, while residents simultaneously lose access to green space.
On Friday September 11, we showed up at Doctor’s Run Park and there were three Arlington County maintenance vehicles pulled onto the grass. The team was busy mowing and blowing and edging. Our park is very well used and we tend to have a lot of garbage from the local 7-11 and lack of garbage cans in the area. We love this park; it is where our neighborhood children get out of one of the many garden apartments and can run after a day of virtual learning. It is a meeting point for many different cultures with usually 5-6 different languages being spoken at any one time and the kids often translating and building bridges for the adults.
The next morning, Saturday, September 12, we showed up at the park with our donuts. All of the “ground maintenance” work done yesterday was strewn across the park. Is this really considered acceptable? When we go to the North Arlington parks for play dates, we don’t see this.
When you think of a park, what do you think of? Arlington is one of the top five richest counties in the country. An award will not replace having spaces to play and relax for all ages.
Arlington County was just ranked as #4 best park in the U.S. by the Trust for Public Land. Let’s set aside the fact that in this instance Arlington is considered a city, that the calculation includes federal park land that would not be considered accessible (i.e., the median of the GW parkway or the Arlington Cemetery, which is not conducive to sports, relaxation or get togethers) or that the TPL does not take into consideration the number of the people expected to use the size of the park (TPL does not use parkland per capita and instead uses access “walkability” to park where tens of thousands of people have access to a park which could be smaller than most backyards). Let’s just focus on what a park in Arlington currently is.
In Arlington, a school is tabulated as a park— all of the school land, including the buildings and parking lots are included in the park calculation. The schools don’t have the funding to take care of the “park” so you will notice the neglect due to the high-volume traffic and lack of maintenance.
In Arlington, a park could be a privately owned space, like the Market Commons or the new Selina Gray Square Park. These spaces exist at the whim of the landowner and may have been added so that the owner could get additional density or some other benefit from the county. Most of these spaces are maintained by the county but when the owner decides that they want to rebuild, that space is theirs.
In 2017, the Market Common was almost destroyed for more retail-friendly outside space. It was only after protests that the plan was sunset and the trees and the “park” remain. However, the residents lucked out because the Market Common is owned by the developer, not the county and it could have gone a very different direction.
In Arlington, a park is highly likely to be closed based on the excuse that either the park itself or some other nearby area needs to be renovated. This has been especially ugly during the COVID times as neighbors seek out green open space. Jennie Dean Park, Green Valley Town Center, Mosaic Park, and Henry Clay Park are all currently fenced off for renovations, renovations that will take years to complete. So, while we have thousands of people within walking distance to a park, they certainly won’t be using these beauties.
Mosaic Park was once full of life with people literally just hanging out, running their dogs and escaping the cement caverns of Ballston. What is clear is that it is a lot of cement and while trees have just been added, they aren’t set up to grow very tall in their tree coffins.
Henry Clay Park is slated to be closed for at least a year with $1.4 million allocated to renovate “the basketball court, the playground, the picnic shelter, fences, and landscaping, among other upgrades.” What is most noticeable as you drive by Henry Clay Park is that they have killed almost all of the trees and added huge swaths of cement on a much loved community park.
But in Arlington, a park is most likely to be a “tree preservation” zone. What this means is that the developer has made a commitment to save some of the trees. The trees won’t be saved though as the construction crew decimates the land under the guise of burying lines and pipes and having no incentive to keep anything alive. The trees and sod will be replanted but not watered, the weeds will begin to grow and the area will be used however is most convenient be it a dirt bike ramp or a dump truck play area.
The exception would be Oakland Park where they removed the trees around the new features resulting in people having places to sit by themselves in the full blaring sun.
All in all, a park in Arlington probably isn’t what I think of when I think of a park, but there is certainly the opportunity to strive for a more inclusive, equitable version of a park as we move forward.
“A society grows great, when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” – Greek Proverb
A neighbor shared an email with me this week that was discussing the merits of removing a significant number of trees for a county project. There were three lines of particular interest
- Infrastructure investments will improve storm water runoff and reduce flooding
- Tree preservation is a priority of [NOVA/Arlington parks] so they will work to make sure that there isn’t a loss of trees.
- The opposition [AKA those who are trying to save the trees] is well meaning but not in the interest of our region.
I’ve heard these three lines a lot in the last few years and they are said by three primary groups: the schools advocates, the sports advocates, and the developers, which, let’s face it, includes the housing advocates. Thus, the County Board and the School Board take these comments and perpetuate these short sighted opinions without taking any responsibility for their roles in positioning the county for the future. And, thus, Arlington has been left with a wholesale slaughter of not just green space, but trees in general.
The Tree People (TTP) have been playing by the rules with overly civil and agreeable tactics including writing letters, hosting meetings with the elected officials and trying to use facts and data to build a case. They are the receivers of sympathetic looks and phrasing like “we agree with you, but our project is more important to the youth.” The irony is that the small group of TTP are largely childfree and making the case that saving the trees will benefit kids in both the short term (asthma, air quality, etc) as well as the long term (infrastructure and long term planning).
TTP are super nice people, they aren’t zealots, they aren’t anti growth, anti development, anti schools or anti sports. TTP are pro-planning for a better Arlington. The data reveals that mature trees are critical in storm water run off and that while infrastructure like tiling and terraces can mitigate the damage caused by overdevelopment, it is the mature trees that will soak up the most water and have the largest impact. When you cut down a healthy mature tree, Arlington needs to spend a lot of money to move that water down to the Potomac and the water that we are sending down is coated in all of the grime that is on our streets. A rain garden or three young trees will not take the place of a mature tree.
Tree preservation is not a priority of Arlington or NVPA. The county officials say it is, but their actions do not align with their words. If you plant seven new trees for every one old tree that you take down, but only one new tree survives beyond three months, trees are not a priority. When every project that comes into the Arlington development docket outlines clear cutting mature trees, tree preservation is not a priority. When every project that has been retooled to save some trees damages the remaining trees’ root system and they die, tree preservation is not a priority. Take a moment: can you find any project in Arlington and identify tree preservation and then demonstrate in the final product that there indeed was tree preservation?
TTP should not be condescendingly labeled, “well meaning,” they are thinking long term, strategically and for the betterment of everyone. Quite frankly, they are thinking bigger than themselves and their immediate families and their immediate wants. The schools advocates are filled with parents worried about their kids right now and not necessarily what their kids will need in ten, twenty or even thirty years. The sports advocates are filled with parents who want their kids to play their preferred sports right now and adults like me who want to be able to regularly play our leagues or hop on a trail without having to drive far. It is about what we want, right now, not about the long term viability of playing in the future. And the developers and housing advocates are in it for the money right now. How to create revenue or ease housing costs right at this moment, not about the long term thinking necessary for people to live a healthy life or the quality of the surroundings. The sports advocates, schools advocates, affordable housing advocates, developers, and the County Board are thinking too short term, just about the right now.
Saving a tree isn’t well meaning. Saving a tree is recognizing that growing a mature tree takes a long time and is beneficial to everyone, especially the youth and the active. It is acknowledging that a mature tree is good for the air, for the water, and for the animals. Saving a tree is being strategic, data driven, and justified.
County Manager, Mark Schwartz, wrote a letter to Arlington Public Schools (APS) outlining a series of sites across the county to be considered for sites for new schools. These sites are located around the county on small lots including community gardens, community centers, and current park space.
Arlington has an excess of diamond fields now and even decades from now, but the Department of Parks and Recreation is not being transparent with the public.
Planning for the storm water retention is critical. But trees, one of the easiest and cheapest ways to combat flooding, are on the chopping block… again.
Arlington County must set a responsible example by holding itself to the same (or more stringent) environmental standards as Arlington homeowners in order to reduce stormwater runoff and lower flood risk.