Big Chimneys Park is the latest park in the City of Falls Church to receive some significant upgrades, honoring a commitment City officials made nearly 15 years ago.
Back then, the proposed City Center development (well, City Center 1.0 now) was looking to take over large swaths of land right by the park, such as the bowling alley that abuts it. Danny Schlitt, the director of the City’s Recreation and Parks Department, said the City planned to update Big Chimneys along with the development’s arrival to complete that part of the town’s redesign.
The development wound up falling through. However, Schlitt said it seemed as if any park renovations were held hostage to Falls Church’s ability to lure in another project. But nearby residents weren’t willing to let Big Chimney’s need for repairs be lost over those concerns.
“The neighbors didn’t forget that the City had promised to do something with Big Chimneys, and rightfully so,” Danny Schlitt, director of the City’s Recreation and Parks department, told the News-Press. “The water over there was terrible [and] the mosquitoes are as bad as any park we have in the City.”
As more money trickled in from newer developments, particularly the 301 W. Broad Street that houses a Harris Teeter and an apartment complex, attention turned back to Big Chimneys. While the price of renovations more than doubled in that time span — jumping from $550,000 to $1.2 million — it was worth it to address the lingering stormwater drainage issues at the park’s base by Shirley Street.
Schlitt said that whenever it rained, all the water run-off from neighboring properties would gather toward the bottom of the Big Chimneys and become a “big mud pit.” He added that the City arborist tried to get creative by putting water-loving plants in the area, but it didn’t help the mosquito problem, with the bugs using standing water to lay their eggs.
So for the first six months of the project that broke ground in December 2019, Schlitt said that engineers worked to contour the land and direct run-off water to units underneath the surface. Once those units catch it, they move the water to the City’s stormwater sewer system and eliminate the puddles that were seen on the ground.
With that problem fixed, City staff turned its attention to more eye-catching renovations — namely, updating the playground equipment. According to Schlitt, every 10 to 15 years playground equipment becomes outdated from usage. And really, after about six years they no longer meet every safety standard. That’s why instead of trying to retrofit the playground Big Chimneys already had, the City decided to install two completely new sets for toddler-aged children, and another for those aged 4 – 12.
“The community and some of the local neighbors helped us come up with ideas of things we wanted in there,” Schlitt said. “In fact, we had talked about maybe reducing the amount of swings, and they residents were like ‘No way, we need these swings.”
There is still a little work left on Big Chimneys’ “gateway” towards the top of the park along Annandale Road. Concrete for a ramp to be laid in order to make the park ADA compliant has yet to be completed, and the park’s signage (which is the tall, covered object by the gateway) also hasn’t been formally revealed either. Once it is viewable, Schlitt said that it will have some history about Big Chimneys as well as be able to have public art affixed to it. Those finishing touches should be wrapped up in the coming weeks, according to Schlitt.
What is already done is the new shelter and a memorial plaque honoring Dr. Nelson Podolnick, a longtime City resident who died in 1993. At the park’s entrance, there are also benches with checkerboards attached to them for roving chess and checkers players to gather. And down by the Shirley Street entrance, a wood carving of a literal big chimney (13 feet high) — similar to the wood carvings of animals that were done in Cherry Hill Park in the summer of 2019.
Schlitt said that the City does need to put benches and tables into the grassy patches at Big Chimneys, but they want to wait until they get a better idea of where people are gathering in the park before they pick a spot.