Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Arlington’s green park enthusiasts are hopping mad.

At the county fair this month, I chatted with an activist at the booth shared by two grassroots groups, the older Friends of Arlington Parks and the newer, recently vocal Arlington Parks Coalition.

This lady exuded exasperation. Yes, she’s aware of the community’s competing demands for new schools, fire stations and affordable housing. But no, it’s not up to parks defenders to solve those other problems—“That’s why we elect leaders, to be creative with innovative solutions,” she said.

Everyone loves a favorite park. For hiking, meditation, a break from traffic and neon, or a handy playground for neighbors, children and dogs.

Yet with resources and land growing scarcer in our 26 square miles, collisions between subcultures are more common. Some compromise and sharing are in the cards.

Back in May 2014, county management was reaching for the sky with a proposal called “Public Land for Public Good.” Its review of 678 parcels of county and school-owned land narrowed possible sites for new schools and low-income housing to a half-dozen.

But by January, after criticism and petitions from parks-backers, the county board deep-sixed the proposal pending delivery this fall of the county’s comprehensive land-use and facilities study. Parks advocates won a second victory when authorities withdrew a proposal to build a school in the parking lot of Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which they considered a threat to T.J. Park.

Over the past two decades, says the Parks Coalition, the county gained 45,000 people and schools gained 10,000 students, but parkland fell from 9.4. to 7.9 acres per 1,000 persons. “Once lost, replacing parks and open space in our urbanizing county will be difficult or impossible.” A new Arlington Park and Recreation Commission study quantified the benefits of Arlington parks (health, environment, property values) at $155 million annually. The parks lobby would have the county build higher, build out existing buildings and buy private buildings.

County board member Mary Hynes told me the debate is frustrating because “we don’t have a shared definition of a park. Does it mean only open space? Does it include the required parking lot? When I first moved here in 1977, most rec centers were attached to a school,” she said, citing TJ’s gym shared by county users and Gunston Middle School’s community theater offerings. “Over time we separated them.”

Hence many parks enthusiasts see the community center at Lubber Run as a park. “So what are we arguing about? Recreational opportunities or passive green space?” Hynes asks. “Their stance seems to be that we should put all our money into buying more land and use it as little as possible.” But “land is our scarcest resource,” she adds. “We don’t have the luxury of too many single-purpose facilities going forward.”

A supporter both of parks and affordable housing to maintain a sustainable community, Hynes notes that the county just bought land off of Quincy Street and is in talks for swaps with Virginia Hospital Center.

But what is likely coming to Arlington is more co-location. “If we can’t co-locate, if we can’t be strategic, it’s just not going to work,” Hynes said. “It’s good for people to speak for parks, but we also have to have the money to maintain them. That’s how the economy works. It’s a funny little balancing act.”

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Local boy makes–not exactly good. I just noticed that disgraced state Del. Joe Morrissey of Petersburg, Va., was a wrestling champ at Arlington’s own Bishop D.J. O’Connell High School. That’s according to The Washington Post Magazine’s colorful profile published Sunday.

Morrissey, you’ll recall, resigned from the General Assembly under threat of expulsion after exposure of his affair and love child with his young receptionist. The eccentric but determined attorney may not be that fine Catholic school’s most prized alum. But he’s famous.