For the first time in more than two years of heated debate, those opposing the establishment of soccer fields north of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, on land immediately adjacent to wetlands, saw a glimmer of hope in testimony by officials of the National Park Service to Alexandria City Council.
Tuesday night, during a Council work session with representatives of the National Park Service to discuss NPS's Jones Point Park Environmental Assessment, J. Mel Poole, acting superintendent, NPS, told Council members, "We're afraid that if we get into a large amount of vegetation removal it will endanger water getting into people's homes during bad storms."
He was answering a question posed by Councilman Andrew Macdonald as to the placement of athletic fields within the entire Jones Point Park site relative to environmental and historic preservation issues raised during multiple public hearing over the last two years.
"One of our concerns is that on the southern part of the site there are historic considerations. And, we are not sure we can sustain a full size active recreation field there," he said.
"We believe there can be some active recreation south of the bridge. It would be more of an event site," Poole said. Discussing the site north of the bridge is when Poole voiced his concerns about aggravating a potential flooding situation if vegetation was disturbed adjacent to the wetlands.
Accompanying Poole to the work session was David Vela who has recently been named the new superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway, replacing Audrey Calhoun, who retired late last year. Poole has served as interim superintendent since that time.
Councilman Rob Krupicka asked Poole, "Do you have money in your budget to help us acquire fields elsewhere if no athletic field are developed at Jones Point Park? His answer was, "No. That would be up to the Federal Highway Administration." The revitalization of Jones Point Park is part of the City's agreement with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project.
When Councilman Paul Smedberg asked Poole about the removal of
vegetation, he answered, "Part of our environmental assessment process in any area is to replace one for one. However, this is determined by the circumstances of each case."
ALEXANDRIA RECREATION, Parks & Cultural Activities Department Director Kirk Kincannon kicked off the meeting in Council Chambers by reviewing the history of the Jones Point Park plan and how that was impacted by the events of 9/11. The critical change occurred with the prohibition of parking under the new bridge due to security concerns by the federal government.
There were four schemes submitted to Council. All but one provided for either one or two soccer fields within the site, either south or north of the finished bridge project. Only the Yates Gardens original plan provided for no active recreation on the site. Their alternative plan proposed one soccer field south of the new bridge in the area where one has existed for years.
After review and debate, City Council approved Scheme A which was essentially the plan adopted by Council pre 9/11 except for parking under the bridge. However, this, which amounted to a lose of approximately 280 plus spaces, coupled with the closing of Jones Point Road, fueled concerns about parking overflowing into nearby neighborhoods.
"We believe parking for Jones Point Park should provide easy access to the river for those who use it for recreational purposes. We are committed to working through the parking problem. We are going to try and frame our recommendations to properly deal with all the issues," Poole said.
Richard Baier, director, Transportation & Environmental Resources Department, said, "30 to 35 spaces are set aside at Hunting Tower. They will be marked "Park Parking" for the hours the park is open."
When asked by Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper, "How many spaces do we end up with overall based on all the proposals," Baier admitted, "The exact number has not been settled.
City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa reminded Council, "We have established that we are entitled to be compensated for the loss of utilization of land due to decisions made after 9/11. We hope to work it out amicably but, if necessary, we are prepared to go to court."
This lead to a discuss of other potential sites for athletic fields other than Jones Point Park. Pepper suggested exploring the site on Eisenhower Avenue now containing Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project offices. Baier noted that site had been suggested to the Bridge Project, however, it had been purchased with funds from the Springfield Interchange Project.
"This does not outlaw that possibility but it adds an additional problem to be dealt with," Baier said. "Tell them to work it out," Pepper replied.
OF PRIMARY CONCERN to Council was the NPS's timetable on preparing its environmental assessment, making its recommendations, and releasing its report to the public for evaluation and comment. Poole outlined the following scenario:
•NPS to complete its review by mid July
•NPS report released for public review in mid August
•Followed by a 60 day comment period and a single public hearing
Comments are analyzed
•Recommendation submitted to local director
•Final recommendation submitted to Regional Director by late January early February
"Washington doesn't begin to wake up until after Labor Day. People will either be on vacation, going on vacation, or just getting back from vacation and thinking about school," said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson questioning the mid August release of the report and start of the 60 day clock.
"There are going to be two valuable weeks lost out of the 60 day total. The report should not be released until after Labor Day or the comment period should be extended to at least 75 days," Woodson said.
"What is the purpose in releasing the report in mid-August?" she asked Poole. "VDOT is concerned about any slippage and their schedule. That is why we have chosen to release the report then," he answered."We (NPS) are more than willing to keep the comment period open longer to allow citizens more time for review," Poole said.
"We have written a letter to the NPS requesting what Councilwoman Woodson has suggested. Sixty days starting in August is just not enough time," said Alexandria Mayor William Euille.
Poole assured Council, "We will take comments in any form except telephone calls during the 60 day period. Following that there will be a public hearing. We have not decided on the format for that hearing but it will probably be similar to one held in the fall of 2005." It was more of a public information session than hearing.
When Euille asked who would be publishing the report, Poole answered, "Potomac Crossing Consultants." They serve as the public relations firm for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, under the direction of John Undeland, director, Public Affairs.