Jones Point Park makeover will keep people out for 2 years

The Pre- Civil war light house in Alexandria's Jones Point Park.
The Pre- Civil war light house in Alexandria's Jones Point Park. (John Mcdonnell - The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

After nearly a decade of bird-dogging the noise, pollution and logistical hassles created by the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, residents of Old Town Alexandria had reason to celebrate when the project was completed two years ago.

Their party was short-lived.

Civic leaders are now outraged by a plan to close the 65-acre Jones Point Park, which runs north and south from below the bridge, for up to two years for a makeover the Virginia Department of Transportation promised as part of a beautification effort tied to the bridge project.

Under the $19 million project, scheduled to begin in October, contractors will add an athletic field, two basketball courts, and a kayak and canoe launch pier; restore a fishing pier and historic lighthouse; and create an entry road and 110 parking spaces, authorities said. But residents are lobbying Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) and the City Council to pressure VDOT and the National Park Service, which owns the land, to do the work in phases so portions of the park can remain open.

"People go there to picnic, play soccer. There's a waterfront where people fish all the time," said Eric Stark, who has lived near the park for five years. "It is incumbent on the mayor to reflect the will of the citizens. Without pointing blame, it hasn't happened. The mayor and City Council are taking steps, but is it too late?"

Euille said it's not too late, pledging to work with residents to find an acceptable alternative. He is scheduled to discuss the matter with Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) on Wednesday.

The problem with doing the work in phases, said Park Service and VDOT officials, is that it would add two years and $2 million to the project.

"We're always open to listening, but . . . we're more in sync with the idea of plowing forward," said Jon James, deputy superintendent of the Park Service's George Washington Memorial Parkway division. "Having to phase it would really slow it down and really bump up the cost."

John Undeland, a VDOT spokesman for the bridge project, noted that the park renovation requires pile driving, installation of an irrigation system and other heavy work that could present safety concerns if residents are allowed to enter.

"Unlike the bridge construction, there will be construction all over the park," he said.

Authorities stressed that the Mount Vernon bike trail will remain open, if in some cases diverted.

The park plan has been controversial for 10 years, when it was tied to the bridge project. A proposal to build a large parking lot under the bridge was scrapped because of security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some residents opposed the addition of the athletic fields when they were included with the current plan in 2005.

Civic activists said they were blindsided by the decision to close the park, having learned of it just last month when one homeowner called the Park Service to talk about an unrelated matter. VDOT is scheduled to seek proposals from construction companies Tuesday, and residents worry that they will have no say in the timetable once a firm has signed a contract.

"We all started feeling helpless," said Yvonne Weight-Callahan, who is helping to circulate a petition to keep the park open. "It's just remarkable how all this has happened in complete darkness."

James said the plans were discussed in previous meetings of a citizens group that was formed to monitor the bridge project. That group disbanded last year.

James Spengler, head of Alexandria's parks and recreation division, said he thinks that a compromise, in which the contractor would agree to occasionally move the construction fences to allow partial use of the park at times deemed safe, can be reached.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company