Alexandria City Council members will decide Saturday whether to extend the no-rent lease for a popular city water park as a way of preserving one of the oldest homes in Old Town and opening it to the public.
The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, which has operated the 26-acre Cameron Run park for 35 years, says extending its lease through 2036 will allow it to obtain a loan that will fund both improvements to the water park and the purchase of the 244-year-old house at 517 Prince St.
“This will allow preservation of this really unique resource without any money coming from the city,” said Paul Gilbert, executive director of Nova Parks, as the authority is now known. “We will continue to invest in Cameron Run . . . as well as preserve the most original 18th-century house in Alexandria.”
Gilbert said discussions about the future of Cameron Run have been underway for about three years. Nova Parks, which already operates Alexandria’s historic Carlyle House, does not pay the city to lease Cameron Run. Instead, the city, like the other five jurisdictions that are part of the parks authority, pays $4.60 per resident for access to the authority’s 30 parks, battlefields, marinas, reservoirs, trails and gardens.
Cameron Run, which attracted 105,000 visitors last year, is the second most highly used parks in the system, Gilbert said. But some residents have debated whether it is the best use for the site, and whether the city should be making money off the park rather than leasing the land out for free.
At the city’s request, the parks authority last year prepared a cost estimate of alternative uses for the site, primarily turf fields for sports activities, which are in perennially high demand.
City Council member John Taylor Chapman (D) said he’s not sure the city is getting the best deal possible from the park authority, and is worried about whether it would need taxpayer funds to adequately preserve the historic house after purchasing it.
He said he intends to ask some tough questions at the public hearing Saturday before the council votes.
“I want to ensure the house is financially stable and sustainable,” Chapman said.
He also said he was concerned that the parks authority has not detailed exactly how it would use the Prince Street house, and said it was “pitting the recreation community against the historic preservation community” by linking the house’s future to the continued use of Cameron Run as a water park, rather than a different type of athletic facility.
If Nova Parks buys the Prince Street house for $1.5 million, Gilbert said, it will plan several special events and tours per year, while allowing the current owner, 89-year-old Joseph Reeder, to live in it for the rest of his life.
Long-term plans could include using the house for such special projects as Colonial-era cooking classes or demonstrations, Gilbert said.
“We really haven’t fleshed out in detail what the programs would be,” he said. “We don’t see it as open daily from this hour to that hour.”
The lease extension and the related loan, Gilbert said, would allow the authority to add a new water ride at Cameron Run.
The house, which was built in 1772, has had few changes over the years. Reeder bought it in 2001 from a family that had owned it for 184 years. He added a new kitchen annex but preserved the original roof, flooring and the eight-hole privy, with separate chambers for slaves, white males and white females.
Reeder described the residence as “liveable by 18th-century standards, not 21st-century standards” and said he was worried a new private owner would alter the home’s historic integrity. He is selling the property now, he said, “because I’m 89, and you can’t take it with you. I wanted to be certain it got preserved.”