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Peter’s Take: Department of Parks and Recreation Needs A Civic Engagement Makeover

Peter Rousselot

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

A grudging admission by a representative of the county’s department of parks and recreation at a civic association meeting last week underscores that DPR still has a very long way to go to improve its civic engagement practices.

Background

In February 2016, the Aurora Highlands Civic Association developed a proposal to restore the west end of Virginia Highlands Park. The proposal was designed “to replace the exclusive softball fields on the west side with a different sort of community park.”

The 16-page AHCA proposal identified a problem and proposed a solution:

Problem: VHP is a popular and heavily used recreational facility that today is dominated by athletic space. The Pentagon City area, including Aurora Highlands, has insufficient park space to accommodate the broad constituency represented in our diverse and rapidly growing population.

Solution: To restore a balance to VHP by transforming the west side into a vibrant public park with creatively designed open green space that complements the existing recreational facilities on the east side.

The full proposal contains a detailed explanation why the softball fields should be eliminated.

Later that month, AHCA voted 35-0 to send a letter to the County Board requesting in part that the Board:

Direct DPR to begin a community-wide planning process to update the west side of VHP with the objective of achieving multi-use open green space that serves a broad cross section of Arlington County residents and a goal of updating the west side of VHP to include multi-use open green space within the next five years.

AHCA and Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks, which submitted a comparable redesign proposal, requested follow-up information earlier this year about the “scope, constraints, limitations, and any charges.” No DPR replies included any charge or limitation mentioning the softball fields.

Fourteen months after AHCA’s Proposal submission — on April 12, 2017 — DPR made a presentation to AHCA about elaborate (and apparently costly) plans DPR had to engage with the community about a VHP redesign. DPR representative Scott McPartlin repeatedly acknowledged that various community groups requested “civic lawns, green space, gardens, more trees…” He then asserted that was all very possible through the “transparent,” informative grand envisioning process he had just described.

After the presentation, Natasha Atkins, AHCA President, asked if the softball fields were then removable.

McPartlin’s response: “No. That is not our intention…The facilities are needed.”

Discussion

Regardless of the merits of DPR’s just-revealed conclusion that the softball fields could not be eliminated, DPR’s fourteen-month delay in responding to AHCA’s proposal to eliminate those fields, particularly with the off-hand acknowledgement finally extracted, is an inexcusable failure of civic engagement.

The centerpiece of AHCA’s 2016 proposal was the softball fields’ elimination and their transformation largely into open green space. AHCA reasonably expected a timely, open, and transparent public process in which:

  • AHCA could make its case,
  • Softball field proponents and any other interests could make their cases,
  • Sufficient data would be made available for informed discussion, and then
  • DPR would reach a transparent conclusion for or against retaining the softball fields with a reasoned explanation.

Conclusion

If DPR thought that the softball fields could not be eliminated, it should have responded to that effect within 30 to 60 days of receiving AHCA’s 2016 proposal. Otherwise, DPR should have launched a transparent public process specifically including the possible elimination of those fields.

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