Arlington, VA

(Updated at 12:33 a.m.) A row of trees lining the railroad tracks near Long Bridge Park in Crystal City is no more after CSX crews began removing them last week, upsetting some residents who say they were an important part of the park’s aesthetic.

Dominique Williams lives nearby in Crystal City and says she comes to the park every day for an afternoon walk. After not visiting for the last week, she was shocked to see the trees gone when she went on a stroll earlier this week.

“When I saw it this morning I said what is going on?” said Williams, gesturing at the pile of broken limbs once a part of the trees she said gave a je ne sais quoi to her daily stroll.

“This takes a lot away from the park,” she said. “It had a vibe, really, and now it’s not there anymore.”

Crews could be seen cutting up stumps and gathering timber for the shredder along the train tracks on Tuesday.

Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish told ARLnow that CSX is removing the trees, not the county, as the land where the trees were growing belongs to the freight rail company.

CSX spokeswoman Sheriee S. Bowman said the company to aims to “positively impact the environment” but had to remove the trees due to an ongoing construction project to build a road running parallel to the tracks.

“This project was designed with the goal of disturbing as few trees as possible, but due to property limitations parallel to the tracks, some tree removal on CSX’s right-of-way was unavoidable,” said Bowman. “Upon completion of the road, CSX will plant 220 new trees and 188 new shrubs in the project area – more than the 217 that will be removed.”

More from CSX’s statement:

“We have chosen native tree and shrub species which will provide a more robust green space than what was previously in place. Additionally, crews will clean trash and debris that has accumulated in this area. The project has been scheduled in close coordination with Arlington County and CSX has maintained open lines of communication with the Crystal City Civic Association and local residents on local impacts. Construction for this project began on March 4th and should be completed by early May.”

Late last year the company notified the Crystal City Civic Association that it intended to remove trees for the construction of a planned access road near the park.

More from the civic association, via a December Facebook post:

CSX has submitted plans for County permits to install an access gate at the 12th Street entrance to Long Bridge Park and an access road along the tracks. This replacement is needed since the current access at the northern end of Long Bridge Park will end when the County’s construction of the Aquatics and Fitness Center starts. The issue will come before the County Board this Saturday, December 15, for approval.

CSX has shown that the gate and road will be built on its property. There will be no changes to the entrance to the park, 12th Street, or Crystal Drive. Beyond the end of the map shown, the road will run parallel to the tracks for about a half mile up to the signals. It will be asphalt from the gate down to the track level and gravel the remainder to the signals.

CSX designed the project with the goal of disturbing as few trees as possible, but due to the limited property parallel to the tracks, some removal on CSX Right of Way is unavoidable. However, the plan includes extensive tree and shrub replanting after construction with more trees and shrubs than are there today. After construction, the new access road (which will be on CSX ROW parallel to the tracks) will be used by light pickup trucks for the signal maintainers and track inspectors. Under normal circumstances, they would probably use the access road 2-3 times a week.

Another Crystal City resident said it’s important to balance business needs with the community but that her family will miss the trees when they come to the park now.

“You can’t stop progress but we would have liked if they kept the trees,” she said

Jim, a retired Fairfax resident who also uses the park, said “overall it’s a positive” that the trees are gone because it also led to the removal of litter and construction debris — what he described as a “garbage dump” — next to the tracks.

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Though the opening of the ever-controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center is still a ways off, county officials are gearing up to hire two new staffers set to work at the facility.

County Manager Mark Schwartz set aside $110,000 for the newly created positions as part of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. He forwarded along his first draft of the new spending plan to the County Board late last week.

Schwartz is recommending that the Board act now to start the recruitment and hiring process for a general manager and a maintenance technician for the facility, currently expected to open sometime in “early 2021.”

“Hiring these two positions prior to the facility opening will allow the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop standard operating procedures; ensure mastery of all building systems, including specialized aquatics equipment; procure inventory; and develop staff training plans,” Schwartz wrote in a message attached to the budget proposal.

The manager expects that the county will be able to afford the new hires largely through some staff reductions elsewhere across the department. In all, Schwartz is recommending $5.2 million in cuts in his budget, affecting 29 full-time positions and one-part time position across the county government. He’s also proposing a tax hike to meet some of the county’s growing expenses, though the Board opted to explore an even larger tax increase than he originally recommended.

Construction has continued apace on the $60 million Long Bridge project ever since it finally broke ground last summer, following years of debate over its scope and cost. Schwartz added in his budget proposal that he “remains committed” to somehow striking a naming rights deal for the facility to defray some of its costs — the Board decided last year to hire a marketing firm to help the county search for potential sponsors.

“As the project moves closer to completion, we remain optimistic that our efforts will be successful,” Schwartz wrote.

County officials also expect to finalize a fee structure for anyone hoping to use the facility’s pools and gym as part of the upcoming budget process. A working group on the subject recently wrapped up its deliberations and will deliver a proposal with potential fees to the Board in the coming weeks.

According to a Jan. 31 presentation from the group, daily passes for county residents would range from $9 for adults to $5 for children. An annual pass for adults would cost $630 and $350 for kids.

Non-residents would pay a 25 percent premium on daily passes and a 30 percent premium on all other passes, under the working group’s proposal.

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Morning Notes

APS on Two Hour Delay — Arlington Public Schools is a two hour delays this morning amid a light coating of snow. Fairfax County Public Schools, meanwhile, is closed after initially announcing a two hour delay last night. [Twitter]

County Still Seeking Aquatics Center Sponsor — “Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz has not given up on his goal of finding sponsors to help offset the cost of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center. ‘I remain optimistic that we will be successful” in finding partners,’ Schwartz told County Board members Jan. 29, though he offered no specifics.” [InsideNova]

ACPD: Get a Designated Driver for the Big Game — “Super Bowl LIII is slated for kick-off this Sunday, February 3, and, for many, this celebratory evening includes alcohol. Enjoy the game and festivities, but don’t drop the ball on safety. Make it your game plan to take a sober ride home – whether it’s by using a ride sharing service, taxi, public transportation, or designated sober driver.” [Arlington County]

Ballston BID to Launch ‘Club’ — “The Ballston Business Improvement District is launching a club for area residents… which appears to be a first-of-its-kind program in the region. When the club kicks off by the end of summer, members will enjoy exclusive benefits like discounts for restaurants and retail, in addition to events like yoga in the park and outdoor movies.” [Washington Business Journal]

Wardian Does It Again — “Michael Wardian, 44, of Arlington, Va. has won the first of seven marathons in the World Marathon Challenge in Antarctica.” [Canadian Running, Twitter]

Arlington Firm Makes Big Acquisition — “CACI International Inc. has reached an agreement to acquire LGS Innovations LLC for $750 million in a deal that extends Arlington-based CACI’s reach into the signals intelligence and cybersecurity markets.” [Washington Business Journal]

Flickr pool photo by Starbuck77

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Arlington officials are getting ready to spend nearly $410,000 for the installation of video boards at the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center, a pricy project that has drawn plenty of criticism over the years.

The County Board is set to approve a contract with a construction company this weekend, after staff submitted a report arguing that only a firm with “specialized knowledge” will be able to handle the installation of the center’s audiovisual systems. The county’s main contractor kicked off work on the building this summer, though workers have mainly been occupied with clearing the site at 475 Long Bridge Drive since then.

In all, the contract calls for the erection of an “LED video board” in the center’s main “natatorium,” complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Staff wrote in the Board report that the work will also include “fixed video cameras, associated broadcasting equipment, ceiling mounted speakers, and other associated hardware and software” in order to allow for the “live streaming of swimming and diving events.”

“The facility will also include speaker systems in the leisure/family pool, that will interact with wireless microphones, as well as in exercise spaces in the facility,” staff wrote. “The package also includes central paging, to ensure all areas of the building can be reached in an emergency.”

The Long Bridge project has long been the subject of intense scrutiny, after creeping costs convinced county leaders to repeatedly delay its construction. Former County Board member John Vihstadt was no fan of the project either, railing against its expense during his successful bids for office in 2014. Vihstadt and other skeptics around the county argued that Arlington had more pressing budget needs than a new pool, and that the project had become full of excesses.

But the Board signed off on a scaled down, $60 million version of the project over Vihstadt’s objections in 2017. However, there were few mentions of the audiovisual system set to be installed as part of this work during debates over the matter.

The Board is currently set to draw the $410,000 for the A/V installation from a $10.7 million fund the county set aside for the project’s “soft costs,” on top of the original $60 million sum designated for the center’s construction. Board members are set to approve the new contract at its meeting Saturday (Jan. 26).

When the project is finished, likely sometime in 2021, the center is also set to include room for diving at a variety of heights, and a family pool, complete with elements including a lazy river, splash pad for tots, basketball, volleyball, lap lanes and a water slide. The project also includes a new fitness center, billed as the largest one operated by the county, and an expansion of the adjacent park and its walkways.

A working group convened to hash out potential fees for the center’s users is also set to meet next Thursday (Jan. 31), as the county solicits feedback on what services residents want to see at Long Bridge.

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DC Fray, a social sports organization in DC, will host its fourth annual Santa Bowl Flag Football Tournament Saturday at Long Bridge Park.

Players can head to 475 Long Bridge Drive on Dec. 1 to play in the seven-on-seven co-ed tournament. Registration — $49 per player and $450 per team of at least 12 players — closes on Wednesday (Nov. 28), or when the tournament fills up.

The Santa Bowl will benefit the local non-profit Bridges to Independence, which offers assistance to help people out of homelessness.

Teams are asked to donate at least five grocery bags worth of the items, including:

  • nonperishable food, excluding peanut butter
  • new, full-size toiletries
  • diapers and wipes
  • paper products including toilet paper and paper towels
  • gift cards to Giant, Shoppers, Safeway or Target
  • Metro SmartTrip cards

Prizes will be given to the top placing tournament winners and also to the team that collects the most donations.

Photo via DC Fray/Facebook

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A coalition of businesses, neighborhood groups and transportation advocates are urging planners to include a bike and pedestrian trail along the long-planned replacement for the Long Bridge, a key railroad connection from Virginia into D.C.

A total of 15 organizations from Arlington, the District and the rest of the metropolitan Washington region penned a new letter last Thursday (Nov. 1) to both local and federal transportation officials working on the project, calling the inclusion of a trail alongside the bridge part of “a once in a generation opportunity to transform our regional transportation network.”

Planners are still sorting out exactly what the new bridge might look like. The original structure, which runs from near the Pentagon in Arlington to Southwest D.C., was built back in 1904, and officials from around the region have viewed replacing it as a necessary step for improving freight and passenger rail service between D.C. and Northern Virginia.

However, the prospect of including a trail alongside the new Long Bridge was not formally included in the various assessments of potential designs of the project. Accordingly, the group penning the letter sought to emphasize the benefits such a trail could have for the region’s commuters, and its economy.

The organizations — which include the Crystal City Civic Association, Friends of Long Bridge Park, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and Greater Greater Washington — stressed that any new trail crossing the Potomac River would provide “crucial links to several important regional trails.” The current crossing along the 14th Street Bridge does not offer a connection to the regional trail network on the D.C. side. of the bridge, and the friends group supporting the Mt. Vernon Trail co-signed the letter.

The groups also stressed that such a trail would spur economic development “by linking two key activity nodes in Southwest D.C. and Crystal City.” That goes doubly so if officials also follow the groups’ recommendation that the trail “connect to the esplanade in Long Bridge Park” and “extend as far towards L’Enfant Plaza as physically possible” on the D.C. side.

Perhaps most importantly, the letter urges that the trail “be funded and constructed concurrently with the rail component of the Long Bridge project,” and that it “should be incorporated into the design of the broader project in a way that optimizes the achievability of the project with regard to cost and complexity.”

In a draft of an environmental impact statement prepared in late June, federal and local planners stress that any trail is “not part of the purpose and need” of the project. Even still, they agreed to include the study of four potential trail crossings in more detailed studies of the project to be completed over the coming months.

Planners have so far narrowed potential designs of the bridge replacement down to two options; both involve building a new, two-track bridge alongside the existing structure, but one alternative calls for the current bridge to stay in place and the other would involve fully replacing it.

Two of the trail designs call for building the crossing alongside the new bridge. Two others call for building the trail along its own, independent bridge: one proposal envisions it being upstream of the new two-track bridge, another would be downstream.

The transit advocates at Greater Greater Washington have expressed doubts about these proposals in the past, arguing that the designs “do the bare minimum” and represent a missed opportunity for planners. However, officials did agree to examine trail crossings over the Long Bridge Park side of the G.W. Parkway, “with an evaluation of connections to the Mount Vernon Trail and Ohio Drive S.W.,” two features that were previously championed by Greater Greater Washington.

Even still, there remains no guarantee that the trail will indeed be included in the project — the June report notes that Virginia rail officials noted “noted that the primary focus of the project is increasing rail capacity, and expressed significant concerns regarding safety and constructability of any combined-mode structure.”

Planners are still a long ways off from finalizing designs, however. The first step is settling on a single “preferred alternative” to examine in more detail, which planners hope to do within the next two months.

Officials then hope to have engineering and environmental analyses drawn up by summer 2019, and the project still needs additional funding. Virginia officials and the rail company CSX, which owns the bridge, have committed to chip in a total of $30 million for the effort, though there’s no telling just how much the bridge replacement might ultimately cost.

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With work kicking off on the long-awaited, hotly debated Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center, Arlington officials are looking for some feedback on what programs and services they should offer at the new facility.

After years of wrangling over the exact design and cost of the facility, county leaders expect the $60 million project will include a 50-meter pool, room for diving at a variety of heights, and a family pool, complete with elements including “a lazy river, splash pad for tots, basketball, volleyball, lap lanes and a water slide.” The project will also include a new fitness center, billed as the largest one operated by the county, and an expansion of the adjacent park and its walkways.

However, a working group is still trying to get a sense for how Arlingtonians expect to use the space, and what programs staffers should offer at the facility. The county even released a new survey this week to help inform that group’s work.

Its areas of focus include questions on what days of the week and times of day residents envision attending the aquatics center, and queries about what sort of membership options the county should offer for people looking to use the center on a regular basis.

The survey also asks respondents for their opinions on what sort of equipment the county should offer in its fitness center — with options ranging from free weights to cardio machines — and what classes it should convene at both the pool and fitness center. Potential classes could focus on Crossfit, yoga, martial arts, scuba diving, lifeguard certification and a host of other areas.

The questionnaire also includes space for people to weigh in on exactly which features they want to see at the family-focused “leisure pool,” and seeks to gauge interest on aquatic activities like diving and water polo.

The working group is set to deliver its recommendations to the County Board by spring 2019. The county held a formal groundbreaking ceremony for the project back in July, and workers are currently in the process of clearing the site. The county hopes to open the center by 2021.

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Morning Notes

Plan for Decaying Salt Storage Facility Tweaked — “Arlington government officials have come up with a slightly altered placement for a new North Arlington salt-storage container, one that may assuage the concerns of some – if not necessarily all – critics of the move. A new schematic drawing moves the footprint of the new storage facility closer to the existing, dilapidated salt dome on the 7.5-acre parcel along Old Dominion Drive between 25th Road North and 26th Street North.” [InsideNova]

New Office Option in Rosslyn — A local commercial real estate firm is opening a new office concept in Rosslyn which will combine the “office on demand” flexibility of co-working space with larger floor plans and suite configurations more common in traditionally leased office space. [Washington Business Journal]

Operating Costs a Question for Aquatics Center — A groundbreaking has been held for the new Long Bridge Park aquatics center, now the county has commissioned a survey of residents to help determine pricing and offerings, which will in turn help the county calculate the center’s yearly operating costs. The latest estimate pegs the subsidy from taxpayers at about $1 million per year. [InsideNova]

Rosslyn-Based Nestle Continuing to Hire — “Global food and beverage giant Nestle plans to boost hiring in the U.S., where it has just opened a headquarters in Virginia, the company’s U.S. chief said Wednesday. Steve Presley, Nestle USA CEO, said on FOX Business’ ‘Mornings with Maria’ that job creation will include positions at the new headquarters in Arlington County as well as production facilities in the commonwealth. [Fox Business]

It’s August — The calendar has turned a page, to August, but the current rainy weather pattern is expected to continue. [Capital Weather Gang]

Photo courtesy Jeremy Galliani

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County officials haven’t given up hope that they might someday find corporate sponsors for the Long Bridge Park aquatics center, in order to offset some of the costs of the controversial project.

With work on the $60 million facility formally kicking off this week, the county is also moving closer to hiring a marketing firm to help it recruit potential partners for Long Bridge. Officials hope to start soliciting bids from companies before the year is out.

The project has had its fair share of financial challenges over the years, with substantial cost overruns prompting the County Board to postpone its construction in 2014. All throughout the process, however, county staff have kept hope alive that a naming rights sponsor or some other corporate partner might step in to help make the pool a bit more affordable for Arlington taxpayers moving forward.

The county initially hoped that the D.C. region might win the 2024 Summer Olympics, attracting plenty of private sector cash for Long Bridge in the process. That bid fizzled, and the Board subsequently oversaw a substantial rollback in the project’s scope and cost, yet officials have remained hopeful that businesses or even local universities might step up to cover some of the pool’s ongoing operating costs.

County Manager Mark Schwartz conceded in a July 10 work session that part of the reason the county’s struggled so much on this question is that this “is not an area where we have a lot of expertise or experience.”

The county does have a deal with Marymount University backing one field at Long Bridge Park itself, and another sponsorship arrangement with George Washington University at Barcroft Park, where the university’s baseball team plays its home games. But Lisa Grandle, the county’s park development division chief, points out that the county generally “does not have any major sponsorships for Long Bridge or any of our other parks.”

She says the county has spoken “with a variety of potential sponsors and partners” for Long Bridge over the years, and even previously worked with a consultant to find some takers for the pool. Yet with all of that effort for naught, she says the county feels putting out a request for proposals for “on-call partnership and consulting services” is the surest way to finally manage a breakthrough.

The exact form of a corporate sponsorship for Long Bridge remains up in the air until the county can find a marketing partner, but Grandle did say the county has some general ideas.

“In general, sponsorships take the form of cash contributions from corporate entities in exchange for ‘entitlements’ from the county, such as naming rights, identification on signage, acknowledgement on staff uniforms or publications such as class catalogs, use of a facility for a ‘corporate day,’ or discount entrance passes,” Grandle wrote in an email. “The cash contributions for sponsorships can be structured in various ways, such as a large lump sum payment up front with smaller payments agreed upon over a period of time or a small lump sum up front payment with larger payments over agreed upon period of time.”

Grandle added that any consultant would initially focus on finding sponsors for Long Bridge, but the firm could also seek partners for other county parks in the future.

While there’s no guarantee that this new effort will succeed at Long Bridge, Schwartz expects that the mere fact that the county’s actually started work on the project after years of debate has to help matters.

“It makes it easier for us to go to prospective sponsors and saying, ‘Here’s the plan, here’s the actual timeline,'” said Schwartz, noting that the facility is currently set to open in 2021. “The process had been bit inchoate and now, to the extent we’re ever optimistic, we’re slightly more optimistic.”

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Very little about the effort to build an aquatics center at Long Bridge Park has ever been easy — and that includes the project’s long-awaited groundbreaking.

Mother Nature had one last obstacle in store for county leaders as they gathered to finally turn some dirt at Long Bridge, delivering a formidable deluge that thoroughly soaked the construction site ahead of Tuesday’s ceremonial start to construction.

Yet even as the rain turned the ground to mush and tested the limits of attendees’ umbrellas, Arlington officials pressed on with a celebration of a project that’s been decades in the making.

“This project has endured worse than a little rain,” joked County Board Chair Katie Cristol.

Voters approved funding for the project in a 2012 bond referendum, but major cost overruns prompted county leaders to delay the facility’s construction two years later, and it quickly became a hot-button issue in that year’s local elections.

After a lengthy process of scaling back the project’s scope, and reducing its cost, the Board signed off on its construction last fall — but even still, some in the community would rather see it pushed back once more as the county wrestles with a budget dilemma.

Those are all big reasons why Jay Fisette, who served on the Board for 20 years, compared the project to a church in Barcelona, Spain that’s been under construction since 1882. Toby Smith, a local activist who helped lead the Long Bridge Park planning process, added that he “can measure the project’s length by the height of my kids.”

“It’s fair to say I did have doubts over the years, even as the community was largely still behind it,” Fisette told ARLnow. “It wasn’t clear every moment that it was going to happen… but groundbreaking helps it become eminently real.”

Fisette remembers some delays prompted when planners working to design the park, which opened across from the Pentagon in 2011, decided to shift where the aquatics center would be located within Long Bridge. He also puts some of the blame for the project’s long timeline on himself, recalling his insistence that the facility meet the new energy efficiency standards he fought to impose for county buildings.

“It was never expected to happen quickly,” Fisette said. “Good things sometimes take a long time.”

Still, Cristol lamented that it was “bittersweet” that the county would break ground on the project without Carrie Johnson around to see it. As one of the county’s longest tenured planning commissioners, Johnson played a key role in shepherding the entire Long Bridge Park project through the process, but she passed away this May.

“Years down the road, we’ll all be thanking Carrie Johnson for this,” Smith said.

But for all the project’s long history, Cristol points out that many of Arlington’s new arrivals are only now learning about aquatics center. She feels Long Bridge is as much about the county’s future as its past, and she hopes the upcoming construction work “will give people a chance to learn about what will be coming here.”

Work is set to wrap up in 2021, with a 50-meter pool, diving towers, a family pool and a series of additional park improvements on tap for the area by the time it’s completed.

So even if the project required some long nights, a few headaches and one last morning in the rain, Fisette feels it was all worth the effort.

“This area used to be an invisible place,” Fisette said. “It was a wasteland, where you’d only come if your car got towed. This is going to transform it into a vibrant community amenity.”

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County Board member John Vihstadt is renewing his push to delay the construction of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center.

Vihstadt is waging a lonely battle against the oft-postponed project as the county’s budget picture grows increasingly grim. He says the $60 million the county’s set to spend on the new pool would be better spent on building new schools or buying additional park land, particularly considering that Arlington is feeling a financial squeeze at the moment.

Between sending more money to Metro and declining commercial tax revenues, the County Board is facing some challenging headwinds as it nears a final decision this weekend on a new, 10-year plan for construction spending. Vihstadt, the Board’s lone independent who is running for re-election this fall, thinks the 72,000-square-foot pool complex can wait a bit longer.

The project’s skyrocketing costs have convinced the Board to repeatedly adjust its plans it over the years, and Vihstadt made an effort to drive down its cost a key plank of his 2014 bid for office. But he still feels that even the facility’s reduced cost is too much for Arlington to take on right now.

“Times change, circumstances change, and I just don’t think it’s right to go forward on that project,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Schools have a higher priority. Parks have a higher priority.”

Yet, just as when he cast the lone vote against the project’s construction last December, Vihstadt appears to be in the minority on that position. His four colleagues on the Board all told ARLnow that they wouldn’t support any effort to postpone the Long Bridge project, even with the county’s money troubles in mind.

“Raising these issues when he first ran for election was an important contribution, because it shifted that narrative to value engineering,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “That success is something John ought to feel he positively contributed to. Now, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to follow through.”

The pro-pool Board members all point out that the project has been in the works for decades, with the community formally signing off on money for the aquatics center as part of a bond referendum back in 2004, and would fill a void for such a facility in the Crystal City area.

But they also stress that the process of unwinding the work the county’s already done would be so costly as to make the effort pointless. County Manager Mark Schwartz believes that cancelling the county’s existing contract to build the facility would prompt extensive litigation, with financial consequences to follow.

“We cannot simply break the contract,” Board member Libby Garvey wrote in an email. “Likely there would be real financial penalties for us if we did, to say nothing of the damage to our reputation among builders. Companies bidding on our projects in the future would likely add extra cost because we could not be trusted to fulfill our contracts.”

The aquatic center’s proponents also see any move to reverse the Long Bridge decision as one that would send the wrong message to the community, or as an effort to “re-litigate the past,” as Board member Erik Gutshall puts it.

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