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Chinquapin Park Recreation Center and Aquatics Facility (image via RPCA/Facebook)

A system upgrade to the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities (RPCA) website could be a windfall for local residents who, today and tomorrow, can access most rec center amenities without charge.

The city is updating its WebTrac service today, leaving RPCA unable to access household information, handle reservations or registrations, or process payments or refunds.

The upshot for local residents is that today (Monday) and tomorrow (Tuesday), all recreation centers in Alexandria will be offering complimentary amenities — because they can’t charge.

“We encourage you to visit your neighborhood recreation center and enjoy fitness rooms, soft play rooms, swimming, drop-in programming, and several other amenities, all free of charge,” the RPCA website said. “RPCA encourages WebTrac users to check their household information beginning September 21 to confirm all information is accurate in advance of using the system for upcoming registrations or reservations.”

Image via RPCA/Facebook

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Boosted by multi-million dollar endowment, ownership of the 45-acre Winkler Botanical Preserve (5400 Roanoke Avenue) was signed over to NOVA Parks on Thursday (September 15).

Mayor Justin Wilson was joined by members of City Council, interim Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, City Manager Jim Parajon and city staff for the deed signing ceremony.

“This is a beautiful property,” Wilson said. “The fact that we are making this handoff happen here tonight, and in bringing NOVA Parks as the custodian of this property for the next generation is so exciting.”

The Winkler Botanical Preserve was created in 1979 by environmentalist Catherine Winkler Herman, who established it as a natural space for generations to enjoy in perpetuity.

The Winkler Organization gave NOVA Parks a $1 million check for capital needs at the deed-signing event, and will give a $3 million operating endowment for educational programs and other improvements.

“The steadfastness of the Winkler’s generosity over generations and their ability to see beyond the horizon is both humbling as it is inspiring,” said Cate Magennis Wyatt, chair of the NOVA Parks board of directors.

Randall Kell, president of the board of the Winkler Botanical Preserve for 30 years, said that the deal with NOVA Parks is a “match made in heaven.”

“How wonderful it is to have such an experiences, successful organization such as NOVA Parks, which shares so many of the values, goals, aspirations and ambitions that the Preserve has had for more than 50 years, step up to lead the Preserve for future generations.”

Kay-Wyatt said that the Preserve will be a valuable educational resource for Alexandria students.

“When you have an opportunity and a gift like this for children to come outside of that traditional classroom and to experience nature’s classroom, it is a gift to us all as educators,” Kay-Wyatt said.

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Winkler Botanical Preserve, via NOVA Parks/Facebook

The Winkler Botanical Preserve (5400 Roanoke Avenue) has been a tucked away, isolated enclave of natural beauty not far from the Mark Center, but with a new acquisition it could be thrust into the limelight.

Regional parks organization Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NOVA Parks) announced today that it will take over ownership of the 44.6 acre nature preserve.

The Winkler Botanical Preserve was created in 1979 and features streams, a pond, a waterfall, and trails. The goal of the preserve was to create an island of natural beauty in the rapidly urbanizing city. The preserve was established by Catherine Winkler Herman, a philanthropist and environmentalist, in honor of her late husband: real estate developer Mark Winkler.

“The enormity of this gift cannot be overstated,” Cate Magennis Wyatt, NOVA Parks’ chair, said in the release. “Catherine Winkler Herman’s vision and Tori Winkler’s brilliance have created an unparalleled botanical oasis within our highly urbanized Northern Virginia. NOVA Parks is honored to be the new stewards of the Winkler Botanical Preserve and on behalf of the generations to come, express our eternal gratitude to the Winkler family.”

In a poll last year, 56% of ALXnow readers said they’d never heard of the park until recently. That’s likely to change, though, with NOVA Parks — which also runs Cameron Run Regional Park — overseeing a significant investment in the park.

NOVA Parks said that, as part of the transfer, the Winkler Organization will provide NOVA Parks with $1 million for capital needs and a $3 million operating endowment to support educational programs and improvements at the preserve.

“In addition, the Winkler Organization is gifting the City of Alexandria with $1 million to advance community engagement and learning resources for City residents and visitors of the Preserve,” NOVA Parks said.

The Winkler Organization will be making an additional $100,000 grant to ALIVE!, a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty and hunger, specifically to supply food and basic needs to families in neighborhoods close to the preserve.

A ceremony later this week will officially mark the transfer. Due to limited on-site parking, parking will be available at William Ramsay Elementary School (5700 Sanger Avenue) with vans shuttling attendees to the site.

“On Thursday, September 15 at 6:30 p.m., NOVA Parks will host a ceremony with representatives from the Winkler Botanical Preserve (Winkler Organization) and local leaders including City of Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson,” NOVA Parks said in a release. “Located in Alexandria’s West End, the Preserve provides public access to nature and protects plants native to the Potomac region.”

“A generation of Alexandria youth, including both of my children, have enjoyed the outdoors at the Winkler Botanical Preserve,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in the release. “With the funds the City is receiving to help our school-age children go to the Preserve and the renewed programming that NOVA Parks will bring to the site, a new generation will be enriched in this wonderful place. We are profoundly grateful for the generosity of the Winkler Organization to ensure the accessibility of this natural space for generations to come.”

Photo via NOVA Parks/Facebook

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Alexandria City High School Friday Night Lights at Alexandria City High School on September 17, 2021. (Via Elijah Walter Griffin, Sr.)

The final community meeting about a proposal to add lights to multiple athletic fields is coming up later this month.

The City Council has approved funding for lighting of two athletic fields, pending the permit approval process, with other locations open for consideration down the road.

The fields being considered are:

  • Francis C Hammond Middle School, 4646 Seminary Road
  • Patrick Henry K-8 School & Recreation Center, 4643 & 4653 Taney Avenue
  • Jefferson Houston K-8 School, 1501 Cameron Street
  • George Washington Middle School, 1005 Mt. Vernon Avenue
  • Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, 426 East Monroe Avenue

Feedback to the proposal has been mixed, with some saying the lights would add extra hours for fields that are in great demand. Some neighbors at the fields have shared concerns, though, that lights at the field could create noisy activity late into the evenings.

The meeting will be held virtually on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. The project is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission on October 6 and City Council on October 15.

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Rendering of new Polk Avenue sidewalk (image via City of Alexandria)

One month after the Traffic and Parking Board unanimously approved a new sidewalk along Polk Avenue, neighbors in opposition to the project are appealing the decision.

The city’s plan is to build a new sidewalk connecting two dead-end parts of sidewalk at either end of the bottom of Polk Park. The park’s thick undergrowth comes right up to the road, where the  side of that road is used as a stretch of parking for nine vehicles.

The city said the sidewalk construction will help students in the neighborhood walk to Polk Elementary and Hammond Middle School.

The project brooked some opposition from nearby neighbors, though, who lamented both the loss of parking spots and expressed concerns about damage to the park by cutting into the toe slope of the hill. While the Alexandria Geologic Atlas identified potential issues with construction on the slope of Polk Park, Jack Browand, chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said his department reviewed the project and is in support.

The appeal filed by the neighbors is scheduled for a City Council public hearing on Saturday, Sept. 17.

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Hensley Park concept plan (image via City of Alexandria)

Joseph Hensley Park (4200 Eisenhower Avenue) is slated to get some major upgrades to the athletic fields benefitting not only park users, but neighboring car windows.

The park is set to get a ring of 30-foot netting and fencing around the park alongside a renovation of the park. Those plans are headed to the Planning Commission for review on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

According to the staff report:

The applicant proposes to install safety netting and fencing around the three athletic fields at Hensley Park in order to protect adjacent roadways from errant soccer balls, softballs and baseballs, and similar sporting projectiles that typically travel through the air during sports games and practices. The request involves two proposals. The first proposal is to install 20-foot tall netting on the east side of the multi-purpose field, 20-foot tall backstop fencing behind the two softball field home plates, and 20-foot netting along the first and third line for the two softball fields.

The report said the netting and fencing are already covered in the funding for the park renovation.

The staff report said the park is slated to have its three softball diamond fields replaced with two regulation-sized adult softball fields along with the replacement of a synthetic turf multi-purpose field. During that planning, though, it became apparent that heavy vehicle traffic around the site warranted netting higher than the city’s 15-foot height limit.

“Due to Hensley Park’s location near heavy vehicle traffic at its borders, special accommodations are needed to protect traffic from athletic balls that may leave the athletic fields,” the report said. “The proposed SUP application request and updates on the Park’s renovation were shared at the July 21, 2022, Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, with no comments or issues raised.”

The permit application says fencing of up to 30 feet could be required as the project goes through development, though that extra height hasn’t been accounted for in the project budget.

“Staff supports the request to install new safety netting and fencing at the Hensley Recreational Fields, which requires SUP approval given that its height would exceed 15 feet,” the report said. “The proposal includes common recreational accessories found around recreational fields that will reduce the likelihood for damage to adjacent roadways and parking areas due to athletic projectiles.”

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Great Waves Waterpark (image via NOVA Parks)

It barely got more than a blip in the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s (NOVA Parks) new strategic plan, but the regional park organization said one of its near-term goals is starting to plan for Cameron Run Regional Park’s future.

Cameron Run Regional Park is a large regional park at 4001 Eisenhower Avenue known for the Great Waves Waterpark — and chlorine spillage — in the summer and the Winter Village in colder months. The water park has occupied a precarious situation in the city for years, though. In 2017, the City of Alexandria flirted with the idea of pulling the plug on the park and finding a different use for the park.

The lease was ultimately extended via unanimous vote, but that lease is set to expire in 2028.

The NOVA Parks strategic plan says the organization should work with the City of Alexandria to get a new plan in place for the park before that date. According to the plan:

Goal 4.6 — Engage with the City of Alexandria in planning the future of Cameron Run Regional Park

An objective heading under the goal indicates that the NOVA Parks should “engage [the] public in visioning the future of Cameron Run” in coordination with the City of Alexandria by 2025.

Planning for Cameron Run Regional Park comes at the end of the strategic initiatives. The document also outlines plans for projects in neighboring jurisdictions, such as upgrading the Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Arlington.

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Where the sidewalk ends on Polk Avenue (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

While several neighbors along Polk Avenue shared thoughts on city plans to replace a stretch of parking with a sidewalk, there was no discussion from members of the Traffic and Parking Board before they unanimously approved the plan.

The city is planning to build a new sidewalk that connects two dead-end stretches of sidewalk that cut off abruptly into dense underbrush. The city said the sidewalk construction will help students in the neighborhood walk to Polk Elementary and Hammond Middle School.

“There is an existing sidewalk on the north side,” said Alex Carroll, complete streets program manager for the City of Alexandria. “What this forces people to do when they’re walking on the north side is make one of two choices: cross the street or continue walking in the street to continue on their journey. When there are cars parked on the north side, they end up being placed virtually in the middle of the street.”

Carroll said this problem is exacerbated at the west end of that stretch of road, where the street curves and drivers don’t have the best view of pedestrians crossing the street.

The city’s plan is to remove nine parking space and a small portion of Polk Park — including three trees — to complete the northern sidewalk.

“There are currently 50 on street spaces on Polk Avenue,” Carroll said. “There are three single-family homes on Polk, each of which has a private driveway. Based on staff’s assessment, we feel there is sufficient parking supply to meet demands in this area.”

Rendering of new Polk Avenue sidewalk (image via City of Alexandria)

Some neighbors, meanwhile, shared concerns about the project’s impact on neighborhood parking and, to an extent, the impact on the park.

“We worked to get the land for this park for many many years,” said Shirley Downs. “Maybe you think it’s proprietary, but we really care about this park. We also care deeply and extensively about permit parking.”

Jeremy Hogg, whose children attend Polk Elementary, said he was one of the individuals that originally requested something be done on the street to help pedestrians, but said he disagreed with the plans staff drew up.

“I saw buses come around the corner, I saw vehicles going very quickly: It is an area that needs to be addressed,” Hogg said. “That being said, I’m not in support of this area as put forward. I think even one of the board members said ‘wait a minute, only two options have been put forward and they both involve the elimination of nine spaces?'”

Hogg said the parking spaces on the far side of the street are frequently full and removing them will eliminate the street parking in front of his home. Instead, Hogg suggested removing a few spaces and reconfiguring the plans to add a slightly larger retaining wall.

“Will effectively eliminate all the parking on my side of the road and we will be forced to walk a block away,” Hogg said. “I’m concerned that we’re not going to have ample parking.”

But Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said any plans that involve pushing further into the park could compromise the well-being of some of the park’s largest trees.

“There’s both direct and indirect tree loss,” Browand said. “By pushing the sidewalk in there would be a direct loss of trees. Also, we have to be wary of the critical root zone. When you start cutting into the hill and putting in other stuff, you start cutting into the root zone. So you may not have direct tree loss, but if you start cutting into the root zone you start losing trees outside of the footprint of the construction area because with some of these larger trees that critical root zone is quite large.”

Browand said the city is interested in getting more people to explore Polk Park, but said there are also no plans to make significant improvements. A single trail runs through the park, but it’s in poor shape.

“There are opportunities and we’ve had internal [discussions] with the installation of this sidewalk,” Browand said. “It would provide a better access route to the entrance of this park… There could be opportunities to get more people into this park. It is a naturalized park, there aren’t significant improvements planned because it is intended to be more natural.”

Without discussion, the Traffic and Parking Board voted unanimously to endorse the city’s plan to remove the parking spaces to create the sidewalk connection.

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Alexandria City High School Friday Night Lights at Alexandria City High School on September 17, 2021. (Via Elijah Walter Griffin, Sr.)

The City of Alexandria is planning to host a meeting later this month to discuss plans to light athletic fields around the city.

The idea behind adding lighting is to provide additional capacity to accommodate an increasing strain on the city’s fields. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, July 21 at the Patrick Henry Recreation Center (4653 Taney Avenue).

“The addition of athletic field lighting will provide additional capacity to accommodate current and increasing scholastic and community program needs within the City’s fixed field resources,” a release said. “The project will support the City Council 2022 Community Priority to Support Youth and Families by expanding for capacity for youth programs, and the City’s goal of providing equitable access to facilities and services.”

But the prospect has already been met with some community pushback from neighbors who say the lights create a nuisance, in part because they allow athletic activities to continue late into the evening. Plans to light an athletic field at Alexandria City High School were the subject of a long-running battle between the school system and neighbors that was eventually settled in 2020, with games played under the new lights starting in 2021.

The City Council has already approved funding for the lighting of two athletic fields pending a special use permit approved by the Planning Commission and City Council. The release said the lighting of additional fields would likely be a three-to-five-year process.

City staff said in earlier meetings that there are three fields that could be lighted as early as FY 2023:

  • Francis C Hammond Middle School, 4646 Seminary Road
  • George Washington Middle School, 1005 Mt. Vernon Avenue
  • Jefferson Houston K-8 School, 1501 Cameron Street

Two other fields, one at Patrick Henry K-8 School and Recreation Center (4643 and 4653 Taney Avenue) and Eugene Simpson Stadium Park (426 East Monroe Avenue) can’t be lighted until 2024 and 2025 respectively.

“If you are unable to attend the public hearing, comments will be accepted by mail or email [[email protected]] until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 20, 2022,” the release said. “Please mail written comments to RPCA, ATTN: Jack Browand, 1108 Jefferson Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.”

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Hensley Park concept plan (image via City of Alexandria)

Plans for the revitalization of Joseph Hensley Park (4200 Eisenhower Avenue) are headed to review at the Planning Commission and could see new field nets added to the popular athletic fields.

The Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities (RPCA) is requesting three 20-foot tall netting and fencing structures, with two backdrop structures along the first and third baselines of the two diamond ballfields and another netting structure along the east side of the rectangular field.

The goal is to keep athletic equipment contained to the recreational facility and not crashing through nearby windows and cars.

“The netting provides additional safety to pedestrians, park users, vehicles, and the adjacent roads including I-495 from aerial projecting balls associated with the normal use of athletic fields,” the application said.

The RPCA is asking that additional height be allowed to raise the nets up to 30 feet in height if necessary. The application said after the fences are constructed, the RPCA will determine if the additional height is needed for public safety.

The new structures are scheduled for review at the upcoming Sept. 6 Planning Commission meeting.

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