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In Fairfax County’s Hybla Valley, some help for the west side of Route 1 but residents want more

Activists who have been working, on both sides of Route 1 in Hybla Valley, to improve recreational facilities for kids, stand at the edge of a vast vacant lot they’d like to see converted to a soccer field or other athletic use. From left, Audubon resident Carla Claure; Jennifer Knox of VOICE; Nora Watts of Bethlehem Baptist Church; Leah Tenorio of Good Shepherd Catholic Church; Rick Genuario of the West Potomac High booster club; and Tuck Bowerfind of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
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It’s no secret that some parts of Fairfax County are richer than others. Hybla Valley, along Route 1 in the Alexandria area of southeast Fairfax County, has long been part of the “others,” with more low-income housing and fewer high-end shopping and eating options. Even within Hybla Valley, there’s an economic divide between the east side of Route 1, with Gum Springs and Fort Hunt, and the west side, with the Audubon Estates trailer park and Murray Gate apartments.

But the folks in Audubon Estates, which has 711 homes without yards, have begun organizing and with the help of VOICE, an interfaith community organizing group, they are making progress in bringing long-needed recreational facilities to their part of Fairfax. The Audubon residents have formed a partnership with churches and high school booster groups on the other side of Route 1 to help raise money for artificial turf fields at West Potomac and Mount Vernon high schools, and to get much needed repair to Muddy Hole Farm Park on their own side of Route 1.

Still, there is a great need for bike and hiking paths and soccer fields and open spaces on the west side of Route 1, which is jammed with families without easy access to many county rec facilities. To go to a pool, some go to the District. So they’ve focused their efforts now on a huge empty parking lot located between the Audubon neighborhood and Route 1. We measured it the other day by the scientific method known as stepping it off. Conservatively, that lot is at least 55,000 square feet. And in front of it is a strip shopping center with a Subway, two dollar stores, a hair stylist, a Hispanic grocery and an Asian bazaar. The Hybla Valley Twin Theatres used to be there, which accounts for the giant rear parking lot. Fairfax County is considering putting a transit center on the site, and the Audubon folks think a soccer field or some non-asphalt-covered space would fit well there too. You can do a lot in 55,000 square feet.

Alma Lopez, who has helped organize the Audubon community, said her neighborhood had been “kind of a forgotten place.” She said there was “no space for the kids to play. We can’t encourage them to go out and play because they really don’t have a safe place to play. ” Lopez began talking to other neighbors, and connected with VOICE, Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, which in turn put them in touch with nearby churches who were willing to lend a hand.

“We build relationships between people who are otherwise segregated because of neighborhood interests,” said Tuck Bowerfind, the pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Fort Hunt area. “We almost never cross Route 1.” But he said churches on the east side of Route 1 have reached across the highway, invited families and kids to events, and provided Spanish interpreters for activities such as soccer league signups. “We’ve been able to build the relationships that’s have been able to change this dynamic.”

In the push to build new turf fields at the two high schools, VOICE spokeswoman Jennifer Knox said community leaders got high school athletes involved and invited elected officials to meetings and bus tours to emphasize the need for recreational space. Rick Genuario, co-president of the West Potomac booster club, said, “Once I started going to VOICE meetings, I got the Mount Vernon people involved, and then we got the schools involved. We’ve had rallies and really raised awareness. The seed is planted.” The booster clubs each raised more than $50,000, the county and school district found close to $3 million in funds and last month the high schools were awarded the fields.

The turf fields, usable by the community year-round, are a good start. “My daughters use that field at West Potomac,” said Carla Claure, an eight-year resident of Audubon. “I want to work to get more fields, have sports for the little kids.”

That’s where the hopes for a field at the Hybla Twin’s vacant parking lot, in the 7800 block of Route 1, or maybe even a recreation center, come in. Fairfax’s supervisors — Jeff McKay (D-Lee) has the west side of Route 1, Gerry Hyland (D-Mt. Vernon) has the east — have long recognized the need. “You’ve got parents who work two jobs, their kids need a place to go,” Hyland said. McKay said, “I’ve been very critical of the way the county’s been doing this for a long time,” adding that he grew up near Route 1 and played soccer at Muddy Hole. “I love the fact that [the Audubon residents] are energized.”

Fairfax County is looking to build a transit center on Route 1 as a central bus location, and maybe more as transportation options improve in the corridor (street cars, light rail and Metro have all been discussed). It is focusing on three sites, one at the north end of Hybla Valley near Lockheed Boulevard; the Hybla Valley shopping center site; and near the South County government center, which is just south of Hybla Valley. McKay and Hyland said they both favor the shopping center site. But could the site accomodate both a transit center and a soccer field or other recreational facility?

McKay said county engineers are looking into what could fit on the property. In the first quarter of next year, the engineers are scheduled to report back on the viability of both transit and recreation there. “If it’s not acceptable,” McKay said, “I want to work with the residents to defeat the recreation issues. There are other ways we can solve that problem.”

The area is in state Del. Scott Surovell’s district, and he said “that site would be perfect for an indoor or outdoor recreational facility.” Surovell has also been calling for a bike trail from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Gum Springs along Little Hunting Creek and across Route 1 to Huntley Meadows Park, and a second trail from Hybla Valley to Telegraph Road, which he said is under an existing electrical right of way, but that parks officials said it had to be maintained as “wilderness area.”

Surovell said, “If these people lived in Great Falls, these facilities would have been constructed years ago.”

Will it happen now? The Audubon folks, VOICE and the supervisors seem more determined than ever. The proof will be in their actions in the coming months.