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Why a popular Alexandria water park may lose its lease

Dominic St. John, 24, in the spiral water tubes at Great Waves Waterpark in Alexandria. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

It sounded like a win for everyone: Open one of the oldest homes in Alexandria to the public, and extend the life of a popular water park — adding a new thrill ride to boot.

But that was before the proposal was unveiled to a city hungry for new athletic fields and determined to ensure public scrutiny of government land deals.

In calls and emails to a comment line and at public meetings, critics have blasted the Alexandria City Council for considering a plan to lease the site of Great Waves Waterpark to the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority through 2036, an extension that would generate virtually no money for the city but would allow the authority to finance the purchase of the historic house and the “Master Blaster” water roller coaster.

Alexandria shuns plan to extend water park lease & buy historic home

Some said the council should convert the 26-acre park, which includes batting cages and mini-golf, into playing fields. Some said the land should be used to generate revenue for the cash-strapped city. And some complained that the deal involving the historic house and the lease extension had been negotiated out of public view.

“Seriously, what else is the city giving away?” asked Micheline Eyraud, whose message to the hotline suggested that the city charge market-rate rent for the water parks site, rather than the current price of $10 a year.

The proposed purchase of the historic home now is dead; the owner’s offer expired Wednesday, and the parks authority has not sought an extension.

Chastened city lawmakers have promised a full community airing of all options regarding the lease.

“When we approached the city with this three years ago, we had no idea there’d be any difficulty,” said Paul Gilbert, executive director of the parks authority. “I think other jurisdictions in the region will be very frustrated if Great Waves does not exist.”

How it came to this

In the 1970s, Alexandria was desperate to host the water park.

Nova Parks was planning to build a wave pool in Fairfax County, said Bill Dickinson, who spent 12 years on the board as Alexandria’s representative, including a stint as chairman.

"Alexandria begged — begged — the authority to locate it here," Dickinson said.

At the time, Eisenhower Avenue was a depressing industrial strip near the city’s southwestern corner, and Alexandria officials were seeking ways to enliven the area.

The city signed a 40-year lease in 1981, and the park was an immediate hit.

A big wave pool, five waterslides and a kids’ zone draw visitors from all over the region — about 105,000 during last year’s three-month summer season.

Combined with fees from the 49,000 who used the batting cages, 10,000 who played mini-golf, others who cast a line in the man-made fishing lake and those who reserved picnic areas, Cameron Run Park netted $506,000 for the parks authority last year, third-highest among the authority’s 30 facilities.

In 2013, Nova Parks began informal discussions about renewing the lease, which was set to expire in 2021. Two years ago, the authority formally proposed a 40-year extension.

The first hint of trouble came in November 2014, when Alexandria’s Park and Recreation Commission held a meeting to discuss the idea.

A number of residents complained about trash and dumping at the park, and the commissioners came down hard on the parks authority. Some suggested using the acreage for athletic fields, which are increasingly in demand in the city.

The Eisenhower West area, where Cameron Run Park is located, is home to about 29,500 people and is expected to add 10,000 more by 2040, city officials say. Meanwhile, Alexandria public schools have experienced a significant increase in enrollment and are anticipating 5 percent growth for each of the next 10 years.

Since 2011, the number of kids participating in the Alexandria Soccer Association league has more than doubled, from 1,800 to 4,000, John Timmons, past president of the association, said last week.

“Every program we have is instantly full,” he said.

The parks commission advised the city to study alternative uses before signing a new lease. But the city manager, Rashad Young, was on his way out, and his replacement had yet to be appointed, so no study was launched.

Instead, Nova Parks, which operates sites across Northern Virginia, commissioned a consultant, who priced three options: two lighted outdoor turf fields and a small support building, costing about $7.65 million; one lighted outdoor field and a field house containing the second field, for about $17 million; or an outdoor field and a ­50-
meter swimming pool inside the field house, for $18.6 million.

About the same time, the authority found a way to sweeten its proposal for a lease extension. It offered to preserve and open to the public a little-known Alexandria treasure, a private home at 517 Prince St. in Old Town that was built in 1772 and occupied for 184 years by descendants of the same family.

How a lease for a water park could preserve one of Alexandria’s oldest homes

The historic house

Gilbert had received a call about the house from Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, in early 2015. The owner, 89-year-old Joseph Reeder, wanted to sell, Mallamo said, but also to ensure the house was properly preserved.

Unlike many period homes owned by the wealthy — think Mount Vernon — this was an example of a more typical 18th-century home and business. It had been home to a blacksmith who operated a livery stable there. Slave quarters are located upstairs.

If Nova Parks got the lease extension for Cameron Run, Gilbert calculated, the authority could secure financing to renovate the water park and purchase the house, which he was now calling “Murray’s Livery.”

Reeder could live out his life there, and Nova Parks would periodically use the home for public education programs and research.

Gilbert sent memos last summer to Mark Jinks, the new city manager, detailing the cost of replacing Cameron Run with athletic fields and laying out his proposal to extend the facility’s lease, buy Murray’s Livery and improve the water park.

Read the memos NoVa Parks sent to the city of Alexandria

By that point, Alexandria was in the midst of a contentious mayoral election and had undertaken several other major planning projects, Jinks said. There was no talk of Cameron Run until January.

Eventually, Jinks and his staff began negotiating with Gilbert, shortening the term of the proposed lease and extracting 2,000 free youth tickets to the park, to be distributed via the city's summer recreation programs if the lease-
extension plan was approved.

On June 13, the City Council placed that proposal and the related house purchase on the agenda of a public meeting that was scheduled for five days later. It was the first time the community had been notified of the possibility of a deal.

Parks and recreation commissioners, who say they had been asking for updates on the lease extension for months, were furious. At the meeting, they and their supporters accused the council of attempting an end run around public deliberation.

“If this had happened in the East End of the city, we would have had meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting,” said Judy Noritake, former chair of the parks commission, referring to the more affluent part of Alexandria, which includes Old Town, and the historic house. “We are selling the West End short by not having an opportunity to create a vision for this park.”

Commissioner Gina Baum described herself as “shocked” by the lease and lack of notice. “Instead of tying up this land for the next 20 or 30 years, we need to let Nova Parks know the time has come for them to wind down their operation there,” she said.

Voices pro and con

A flood of calls and emails to the city have been about evenly split for and against keeping the water park, said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D), who served on the board of the parks authority from 2010 to 2012.

“I am pleading that the City Council renew the lease,” a message from Patricia Moeller said. “Don’t let this small but strong group of people push us out of this park. . . . I have a season pass so I can take my grandson to the pool every sunny weekend, and he loves that pool.”

Another commenter, Kim Christman, argued that “this unique space could be an amazing hub of year-round recreation activities for youth and adults in the city, one that we desperately need and deserve especially as we project a continued increase in participation in recreation activities like soccer and baseball. . . . Let’s not short-change our future.”

Residents and council members also are asking why the city is getting no revenue from the park. Alexandria pays Nova Parks $4.60 per resident a year to help support the authority — as do Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties, Fairfax City and Falls Church, the other jurisdictions the authority serves. For Alexandria, that amounts to about $672,000, said Morgan Routt, the city’s budget director.

The council has delayed any decision on the lease until at least late fall to allow for public input. After that, the council will decide whether and when to vote on the proposal.

"There was failure on many fronts, to try to make this decision in a vacuum," Noritake said. "We have reached the point where [the city and Nova Parks] are at cross-purposes."

Timmon, the former soccer league president, said much of the anger stems from a sense that the city was negotiating the lease extension without considering alternatives.

“Nothing against the water park, but I want us to do some planning about what’s best for the city of Alexandria,” Timmon said. “Before we go and sign away our land for another 20 years, we should analyze this. It might all pencil out that the water park is the best choice.”

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