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County Board Approves Four Mile Run Valley Policies, Including Contested Jennie Dean Park Changes

The Arlington County Board has signed off on a new policy framework to guide the redevelopment of the Four Mile Run valley in Nauck, a long-awaited step in the lengthy planning process for the area.

The Board voted unanimously to approve the planning document Saturday (May 19), highlighted by a recommended redesign of Jennie Dean Park (3630 27th Street S.) that’s prompted fierce debate among community groups working on the issue.

Broadly, the policy framework is designed to guide the Board as it works in the coming months to develop a final area plan and parks master plan for the area. Most of the focus of the document is on plans for green space in the area — including Shirlington Park, Shirlington Dog Park and portions of both the Four Mile Run stream and trail — in addition to future pedestrian and cycling options along nearby roads like S. Four Mile Run Drive.

The framework is also designed to help the county promote the arts alongside the industrial buildings that have long dominated the area.

“It is not a rigid codification,” said Board member John Vihstadt. “It’s a scaffolding, a framework so we can work out the details together.”

The Board is hoping that the document helps county officials as they plan around a potential acquisition of PBS member station WETA’s building in the area (3620 27th Street S.), a possibility the county has long discussed with WETA without any resolution in sight.

Currently, the building sits adjacent to Jennie Dean Park and its athletic fields and tennis courts. The new policy framework assumes that the county will eventually buy the property and use it to expand some of the park’s amenities — County Manager Mark Schwartz told the Board that WETA’s hired a consultant to evaluate its future in Arlington, and that firm will deliver a report to WETA leaders by the end of the year.

The County Board had to choose between two options for redeveloping the park, and taking advantage of the hypothetical acquisition of WETA’s space. One called for two planned baseball and softball fields to be aligned closer to S. Nelson Street, with new basketball and tennis courts on the site of the WETA building; the other involved putting those courts closer to S. Nelson Street and one of the athletic fields near the WETA building site instead.

The second option won the support of some community groups examining the issue, as they expressed concern about having the baseball fields so close to S. Nelson Street and 27th Street S. The county’s Park and Recreation Commission voted overwhelmingly to support that concept, as did the Nauck community’s representative on a working group convened on the issue. The Nauck Civic Association unanimously endorsed the second option, writing that it better provides “a gateway for the community to enter the park” by leaving some additional green space near the neighborhood along S. Four Mile Run Drive.

Yet the county staff endorsed the first option, reasoning it would be better to have those fields closer together for maintenance and construction purposes. (The Shirlington and Douglas Park civic associations also supported option one.)

The Board agreed to the framework with little debate, but some members made sure to highlight that the plan was very much a compromise, particularly after the working group was bogged down by persistent disagreements.

“We have two options here; one that meets the threshold question for the Nauck community and one that does not,” said Board member Erik Gutshall. “I am asking the Nauck community to make a further compromise on this. I know it’s not what you’d prefer to do.”

Yet others on the Board urged community members to take a step back and see the forest for the trees, noting that this section of south Arlington has often been neglected over the years. For instance, Jennie Dean Park is named for a former slave and was once in a segregated neighborhood, facts some Board members were quick to highlight.

“We’re arguing about baseball fields and fences here, and that doesn’t feel to me like the best way to have a conversation about redress for this inequity in our community,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol.

But Gutshall did want to stress that simply developing this policy framework is no guarantee that the county will turn its full attention to the area. While the county is hoping to finalize an area plan for the valley this fall, and plans to start construction work on the first phase of Jennie Dean Park improvements next year, Gutshall urged his fellow Board members to remember the commitment they made to funding improvements in the area down the line.

“What I feel this Board owes to this community is a firm pledge that the county will follow up on what happens here,” Gutshall said. “The community has been waiting for decades.”

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