From Drainage Ditch To Natural Treasure

Cycling along Four Mile Run
Along the Four Mile Run a bikeway exists. The master plan calls for pathways along both sides, public plazas and grassy tiers leading down to the water. (Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Officials in Alexandria and Arlington last week adopted a plan that they hope will transform Four Mile Run from a sterile flood-control passage into a natural streambed with trails and parkland.

In an unusual joint effort, the two localities began in earnest in 2003 to examine what could be done with a 2.3-mile stretch of Four Mile Run, which was straightened and turned into a concrete flood-control project by the Army Corps of Engineers 30 years ago.

The result is an ambitious project that could take decades to complete and that comes with a hefty price tag, around $261 million, with an additional $94 million for moving utility wires. About $2.6 million has been funded, officials said.

Planners envision turning Four Mile Run into a natural-looking stream again, with native plants and entry points to float a kayak or canoe. They hope to remove railroad bridges in Potomac Yard to make room for parks, while adding more than 60,000 trees, pedestrian and bike bridges, trails and sports fields.

Arlington, in particular, hopes to gain its own bucolic waterfront from the endeavor, as the county is separated from the Potomac River on the north end by federal land.

"It's a successful flood-control project, but it's basically a big drainage ditch," said Arlington County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D). "It can be a real stream and natural area people will appreciate."

Talk of what to do about Four Mile Run began in 2000, as plans surfaced for redevelopment of the old railroad facility at Potomac Yard on Route 1, where millions of square feet of office space, retail and houses are slated to be built.

Four Mile Run was straightened and turned into a flood-control channel by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s, after flooding in the Arlandria area following Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Several unsightly utilities are located on its banks, such as Arlington's wastewater treatment plant and a Dominion Virginia Power substation.

As the two close-in suburbs lost open space to rapid redevelopment, officials began to wonder if they shouldn't take another look at Four Mile Run's potential.

"With the very dense population along Four Mile Run through Arlington and Alexandria, we began to realize this was a magnificent resource that should enhance people's lifestyles," U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said.

In 2000, Moran helped get a $1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the channel from Shirlington Road to the Potomac River.

The resulting plan -- which could take 20 to 30 years to turn into reality -- calls for redoing the streambed, adding native plants and soil, and restoring wetlands. Additional bike trails and pedestrian crossings over the water are planned, as well as a promenade, park and outdoor amphitheater for the new Potomac Yard neighborhood.

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