After years of debate and setbacks, a plan to build new athletic fields and parking spaces at Jones Point Park in Alexandria was approved 5 to 1 by the City Council in late June. But some nearby residents say they are still worried about the project's possible effects on their neighborhood and on the park's ecology.
Reconfiguring the park had long been in the works after it became clear that construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge would damage part of it; to compensate, the federal government allocated $14 million to renovate the park.
An earlier plan, which included 242 parking spaces under the bridge, was abandoned after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: It was determined that allowing parking there would be too dangerous. Planners started over, and issues that had been ironed out earlier -- including the number of playing fields, parking spaces and other changes -- again came up for debate.
The latest plan, which calls for 110 parking spaces and two playing fields north of the bridge, is under consideration (along with two alternative plans) by the National Park Service, which will conduct an environmental assessment and hold public hearings this fall. The plan, which includes restoration of historic areas, has been hailed by Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille (D) but criticized by some residents who live north of the park and worry that noise and traffic associated with the fields will spill into their streets.
Yvonne Weight, who lives two blocks from the entrance to the park and sits on the board of directors of the Old Town Civic Association, said that adding playing fields and cutting down 2.2 acres of trees as part of the project would compromise the park's integrity.
Weight said that when she moved to Alexandria in 1964, the park was pristine.
"It was just a wild and empty space," she said. "It's an environmental travesty to cut down trees and fill in wetlands for the purpose of building a parking lot for a park."
She said she worried about the fate of wild irises, Baltimore oriels, bald eagles, and other flora and fauna; about new water runoff patterns causing other wetlands to dry up; and about her neighborhood being inundated by cars and noise from people using the fields.
Judy Guse-Noritake, chairman of the city's Park and Recreation Commission and a proponent of the plan, said the effects of the playing fields and parking spaces on wildlife would be minimal in comparison with the magnitude of the bridge project.
"It's not going to flood the neighborhood, and it's not going to impact the wetlands," she said. "A natural grass field doesn't function very differently from wetlands."
The debate over the park, which encompasses more than 60 acres, comes at a time when playing field space in Alexandria is scarce. Youth teams often have difficulty scheduling time to play, and new adult leagues are no longer accepted in the city because of the crunch.
Guse-Noritake said the lack of fields was harmful to children's health and bad for a city trying to attract people in their twenties and thirties who have "grown up with sports as a way of life." By limiting adult sports, she said, "we're telling them that if you move to our town, you can't play here."
As for residents' concerns about parking in the surrounding neighborhood, she said, "That's part of living in Old Town, that you scramble for parking spaces."
Council member Del Pepper (D), the dissenter in the council's vote, said she worried that too much was being squeezed into the park. "This is a city that has treasured its trees," she said, adding that she thought the fields could have been built elsewhere.
Council member Rob Krupicka (D), who made the motion in favor of the plan, said the council is sensitive to the traffic and parking issues. "We're going to have to work together and be creative to find solutions," he said. "For example, not having games so stacked on top of each other that people are driving around looking for a spot, or working with the sports people to encourage carpooling."
Barring surprise findings in the environmental assessment, people on both sides of the debate said they expect the plan to be approved by the National Park Service later this year or early in 2006.