Alexandria's new 400-page Strategic Master Plan for Open Space, Parks and Recreation provides an exhaustive inventory of the city's open space and recreational facilities and lays out a wish list of projects for 10 years.
But as usual, the greenest of the green issues raised in the two-year planning document may also be the thorniest: money. In fact, Alexandria's scarce supply of green space harks back to its narrow focus on the pursuit of profit from its earliest days.
The new draft plan envisions tying the city together more tightly with more biking-and-hiking trails, filling in gaps in the planned walkway along the Potomac River, enlarging the Chinquapin Recreation Center and perhaps building a recreational facility in the west end, constructing more playing fields and creating an Alexandria Open Space Conservancy to fund the acquisition of open space. The plan also suggests sprucing up gateways and key corridors, such as Route 1 and Commonwealth Avenue.
But the price tag for maintaining and improving existing parks grounds and buildings is not cheap. Implementing the plan will cost $77 million or more over 10 years, including $50 million to acquire land and conservation easements, the report says. Improving parks would run about $10,000 an acre. Each mile of new trails would cost roughly $500,000.
Raising that kind of money could require increasing user fees, creating a new real estate tax, enlisting nonprofits in partnerships, selling corporations naming rights and more, according to the draft. City Council member David G. Speck (D), for example, has been pushing the idea of a small recordation fee that would be collected from the $1 billion in real estate sales tallied in the city each year.
The City Council is expected to hold public hearings on the plan early next year.
"The question is, will they put money behind it? Will they put action behind it?" said Judy R. Guse-Noritake, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee.
She said surveys in the plan found that people were willing to commit their tax dollars to open space and recreation facilities, even if they did not think they would use them themselves.
"In a world in which more and more people are living in townhouses, there certainly is a need for open space. I think that's why it's come to a head now," said Katy Cannady, co-chairman of the Federation of Alexandria Civic Organizations who emphasized that she was speaking for herself.
Yet, even as the draft plan was headed to press, city officials were sweating the possibility that the Second Presbyterian Church grounds, a rolling stretch of land at Quaker Lane and Janneys Road in the west end, could be sold to a private developer.
"That corner is very valuable," said Sandra Whitmore, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Activities Department. "It would be sorely missed if that was built up."
The denomination, which closed the church recently because of dwindling membership, has been talking to the city about preserving the open space. But amid a feeble economy, the city, like the state and federal government, is hard-pressed to find money for essential services.
"The city, just like the state, doesn't have very much money now," Whitmore said.
The strategic master plan, whose draft report was rendered up to the City Council last week, ably recounts the city's Johnnie-come-lately history of setting aside open land, offers a valuable supply of data on recreation needs in the city and prescribes a timetable for preserving and creating more recreation opportunities and open space over 10 years.
Long ago, only Market Square had been intended for community use in early Alexandria, though there were other informal "commons" set aside for grazing horses and livestock. As reflected in the utilitarian grid pattern of its streets, the city was more keenly interested in the orderly pursuit of profit than recreational open space. The city's recreation department did not get around to discussing the construction of its first official park until 1948, nearly 200 years after the city's founding, according to the report. And this park -- intended to fit between St. Asaph, Fairfax, Montgomery and First streets -- was never built, for reasons still unknown.
These days, Alexandria is about as tightly packed as Detroit or Cleveland, the report says. Breathing space is found around 127 parks of several acres to more than 50 acres. Yet, although the west end has been growing the fastest in population, for example, most open space remains in the east end, including Old Town. In the western part of town, there are 7.7 acres per 1,000 people, compared with 12.28 acres in the eastern part, the report says.
Noting that the city is the nation's 10th densest, up from 11th place at the time of the 1990 Census, the report suggests that Alexandria will need to acquire 127 acres over 10 years just to keep pace with projected population growth.
In 1990, for example, the city had 7.5 acres of open space per 1,000 people, including both "active" space such as playing fields and "passive" open space such as parkland. Despite adding 125 acres of open space in the last decade, that ratio stayed the same because the city's population also grew from 111,000 to 128,000. By 2010, with the city's population expected to reach 142,000, an additional 100 acres of breathing room will have to be found just to maintain the status quo.
Meanwhile, the city has 10 indoor recreation facilities. Most of them are small, suitable mostly for neighborhoods nearby. Only the Chinquapin Recreation Center is large enough to serve the entire community, the report says. Although the total amount of floor space in the centers is above the national average, it is often used only for youth activities because of overflow from school activities, the report says.
"I guess I was somewhat surprised by the deficient amount of open space the city has," council member William Euille (D) said.
Euille said that he was not surprised at the need for indoor recreation centers and that he thinks the city could meet the plan's goals -- but most likely only with an assist from the private and nonprofit sectors.
The open space plan, prepared by consultants Rhodeside-Harwell Associates and Leon Younger & Pros, drew on surveys and focus groups with residents, interviews with city staff, and community meetings, and cost $268,500, Whitmore said.
"What I like is, it presents a very broad vision of what the city could look like in 20 years from now," Speck said. "But like a lot of things, it's about money."