From Drainage Ditch To Natural Treasure
Park Plan Approved by Arlington and Alexandria Calls for $261 Million Revival of Four Mile Run

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.

The plan's backers admit that it is an ambitious undertaking, and that securing the funding from a variety of public and private sources, such as developers, will be a challenge. The $261 million figure was received with gasps at the Alexandria City Council meeting last week.

"I fainted over here!" quipped Vice Mayor Redella "Del" S. Pepper (D).

Four Mile Run task force co-chairman Judy Guse-Noritake of Alexandria said the cost of some components of the plan, such as a new bridge at South Glebe Road, should be covered by state transportation funds. Estimates are that the restoration effort for the stream will cost $70 million, the majority from federal funds, officials said. The local portion of stream restoration would be $29 million, split between Alexandria and Arlington.

In addition to the funding uncertainty, the project faces a technical hurdle. Redevelopment of the flood-control passage hinges on an Army Corps of Engineers study on whether the area can be turned into a natural streambed and still provide enough flood protection for homes and businesses.

Claire D. O'Neill, project manager for the Corps, said that updated flood models show that the conversion probably could be done without endangering nearby homes, but that the agency won't know for sure until the study is complete in 2008.

Maria Wildes, a Parkfairfax resident, said she worries about whether the improved stream would be more likely to flood, noting that her complex's maintenance facility is just yards from the bank.

"I'm concerned that the plans do not adequately address the water capacity of Four Mile Run," Wildes said. "They keep talking about all the nice plants we're going to plant. I'm looking for the data about how much water, how fast, it can hold."

The first real change residents will see will be a $3.3 million pilot stream restoration project to be designed over the next 12 to 18 months. The pilot project will be in the tidal area of Four Mile Run between Mount Vernon Avenue and the Potomac, visible to drivers on Route 1.

"We chose this area as a demonstration project because it's highly visible and it's something that is doable right now," said Neal Sigmon, an Arlington resident and co-chairman of the citizen task force.

Guse-Noritake said the hope is that the pilot project area serves as a gathering spot for the neighborhoods surrounding the burgeoning Potomac Yard development.

"This is going to be a huge population center . . . and this will be its recreational center," she said. "It will be a place where people are coming together, a high-energy urban area where people are walking, biking, getting an ice cream cone. This is where it's going to be."

A contractor will be hired to add soil berms and native plants, add seating areas and benches and restore and add to wetland areas that border Four Mile Run Park. Planners also hope to add a pedestrian walkway between South Eads Street in Arlington and Commonwealth Avenue in Alexandria.

Officials said this walkway -- one of six planned -- would be a key element of the project, aimed at making the waterway, as Zimmerman put it, less of "a barrier or a moat."

"Four Mile Run is what divides Arlington and Alexandria," Zimmerman said. "In the future, we hope it will be what joins us."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company