Reston Residents Debate Recreation Center Proposal

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

All summer long, Brown's Chapel Park in Reston is overflowing with people: children racing to Little League baseball and soccer practice, a steady stream of joggers along the tree-lined footpath, even a pickup cricket game on weekends.

It is a classic suburban park that neighbors describe as both tranquil and humming with life. But a patch of green and a couple of ballfields might not be enough for the suburbs anymore.

Plans are under consideration to construct a large recreation center on part of the 22-acre park with indoor tennis courts, a 50-meter pool, exercise equipment and classrooms for everything from yoga to dance instruction. Supporters say the $45 million to $65 million facility is needed in the community, especially among young swimmers who sometimes have to travel to Loudoun County to find a place to practice.

The proposal has pitted one brand of recreation against another. Swimmers, tennis players and others who believe the region is in sore need of high-quality outlets for their passions are on one side. On the other are those who prefer the green space just the way it is. They've been referring to the proposed facility as recreation's equivalent of Wal-Mart.

The debate underscores the larger difficulty of providing the range of recreational offerings that residents demand in Washington's densely packed suburbs, where development has nibbled away at the region's green space and neighbors fight to protect it.

"We live in a region that is urbanizing, and we can all see open space that we enjoy and appreciate getting transformed into housing and strip malls," said Paul Gilbert, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. "You value what is a limited commodity."

The parks and community centers across Northern Virginia are extremely popular. According to a 2007 park authority survey of 1,000 households in Loudoun, Fairfax City and Falls Church, about 71 percent of respondents had visited a local park, community center or recreation center in the past year.

A top priority was land preservation; 59 percent of respondents were "very supportive" of efforts to buy and preserve open space and natural areas. Fairfax County officials also report a shortage of high-quality outdoor sports fields.

Demand is strong for large-scale recreation centers as well -- the kind of places where children can learn to dive and adults can hop on a treadmill or take photography lessons. According to the survey, nearly 40 percent of residents queried said they were "very supportive" of agencies' efforts to develop indoor fitness facilities.

Such large facilities are costly and difficult to site. For example, in Fairfax County, officials have no immediate plans to build recreation centers. Instead, the county is hoping over the next few years to expand its existing centers, which boast everything from pottery studios and water slides to squash courts and an indoor ice-skating rink.

Among the most vocal supporters of a new center funded by Reston residents are swimmers. The community of about 62,000 residents has one large public indoor pool where classes fill up so quickly that there is a waiting list to participate. On rainy days in the summer, the pool gets so crowded that people are routinely turned away. And competitive young swimmers often drive long distances to find a place to train.

For example, Lisa Groves leaves her Reston home at 4:20 a.m. three days a week to drive her 12-year-old daughter to Oakton so she can swim laps before school. The needs of swimmers, she said, ought to be considered along with those of the families who now enjoy the trails and fields of Brown's Chapel Park.

"All these families have their own affinities," she said. "Maybe the ones that are the loudest voices right now are the runners and the bikers and the soccer players."

Leaders in Reston say their priority is staying true to one of the community's founding principles: that residents ought to be able to work and play where they live, no matter what sport they prefer. Officials there have not decided whether to move forward with the project, and may scrap or scale it back, depending on public input.

If they move forward as planned, it would probably mean the removal of the baseball diamonds, some of the open space and some trees. As much as officials would like to build a recreation facility with no negative impact, "we're not in a utopia. We're in a built-out community called Reston," said Robin Smyers, president of the Reston Association. "We will try to balance the needs of as many people as we can."

On a recent afternoon at the park, just about everyone had heard about the plan and, like Satch Baumgart, thought it was "the dumbest idea I've ever heard."

"Why change this?" said Baumgart, 68, who was out for his daily walk. "It's a nice, quiet place to be."

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