Planners say they hope to save dozens of trees originally slated to be cut down as part of an overhaul of Upton Hill Regional Park, a move viewed by environmental advocates as a small, but meaningful concession to their concerns about changes at the park.
NOVA Parks, the regional body that manages Upton Hill, wrote in a letter to the county’s Urban Forestry Commission last week that it hopes to save as many as 49 trees on the site, nixing plans for a new parking lot in the park’s lower half and new vehicle entrance from Wilson Blvd.
As many as 115 trees were originally set to be chopped down at the park, located at 6060 Wilson Blvd near Seven Corners, when a $3 million renovation of Upton Hill gets moving later this year. That’s prompted some fierce pushback from neighbors and conservationists alike, who have rallied to reverse what they see as a blow to the county’s tree canopy and stormwater management.
Even though the County Board won’t have any direct say on the project’s design, the outcry convinced the Urban Forestry Commission to pen a letter to the Board about the project on Aug. 29.
Paul Gilbert, the executive director of NOVA Parks, wrote back on Sept. 6 to say that his staff had managed to make some changes to save 35 living trees and 14 dead ones on the property. Rather than building a new parking lot, he plans to create more handicapped-accessible street parking spaces, while also making street parking on Wilson Blvd “time-limited during the day.”
“This change will allow us to achieve the goal of a more inviting lower park area that the Civic Associations had requested, while eliminating the lower parking lot and vehicular access off Wilson Blvd,” Gilbert wrote. “The Upton Hill Improvement Plan is a win-win for both the natural resources and active users of the park.”
A group critical of the park’s redevelopment known as the Friends of Upton Hill hailed those changes in a Sept. 9 email to supporters, attributing it to mounting “public pressure and scrutiny” of the plans. Local environmental activist Suzanne Sundberg was also cautiously optimistic.
“Is the current plan ideal? No,” she told ARLnow. “Is it enough to prevent increases in runoff and erosion down that hill? Probably not. But it is an improvement. And I’m grateful for any improvements to a plan that is about as ill-conceived, wasteful and destructive as it could possibly be.”
Both Sundberg and the friends group are also anxiously awaiting the formal release of NOVA Parks’ newly revised tree removal plans. For instance, Sundberg is suspicious that “possible other trees not on the existing removal list are now being counted as ‘saved’ to make the numbers appear better.”
“For example, trees less than three inches in diameter at breast height were not included in the existing tree-removal plan/list, even though they, too, would have been removed,” Sundberg said. “I have to wonder whether some of these ‘saved’ trees might actually represent some of these smaller ones not originally identified.”
The friends group also expressed hope that some three mature maple trees near the lower playground set to be renovated — previously described by Boulevard Manor Civic Association President Chris Tighe as “something out of a Stephen King horror movie” — will also somehow be saved.
“It would also be tough for kids to enjoy the new playground equipment while being baked in the hot summer sun,” Josh Handler, a lead backer of the group, wrote in an email. “Reasonable alternatives to the playground renovations would preserve at least some of the existing trees — if NOVA Parks chooses to be flexible.”
Handler reiterated in the email that his concerns linger about how the removal of so many trees in favor of a new parking lot in the park’s upper half will impact stormwater on the site. But Gilbert believes that a cistern built underneath the new lot will adequately address those worries, arguing in his letter that the lot will “far exceed county building standards.”
“Upton Hill has long been a park with a combination of great natural resources and popular features for the public,” he wrote. “This balance will continue with these improvements, making for a great urban park.”
Ultimately, plans call for a new oak/hickory forest at the park, as well as a ropes course, renovated restrooms and a new ticket booth for its batting cage.
Starting in the next few months, Upton Hill Regional Park is set to get a major makeover — but the process of sketching out plans for the renovation work is getting a bit messy.
Some neighbors and county conservationists see the whole project as poorly conceived and deceptively managed by NOVA Parks, the regional body that maintains Upton Hill. Plans to cut down 115 trees at the park, located at 6060 Wilson Blvd near Seven Corners, strike them as a blow to both the country’s tree canopy and a disaster for stormwater runoff in the area.
But park officials, and even some of their fellow neighbors, feel these complaints have been blown entirely out of proportion, arguing that a few malcontents are lobbing bombs against a project that will transform a park sorely in need of a facelift.
The $3 million renovation work is set to proceed over the next year or more, and with a new petition urging NOVA Parks to re-think its plans, debate over the project seems sure to intensify moving forward.
“I look at this as a phenomenal upgrade to the community… and some of the arguments being made against it are beyond ridiculous,” said Chris Tighe, president of the Boulevard Manor Civic Association, where the park is located. “Eventually, we’re going to have to ask what’s more important: a couple of voices, or the safety of park-goers and this park’s future?”
Paul Gilbert, the executive director of NOVA Parks, says his group last upgraded Upton Hill back in 2006, and decided back in 2015 to pursue some upgrades to the park.
Some of the planned changes are relatively uncontroversial: park officials hope to add a new ticket booth for the park’s batting cage, renovate some of its restrooms and build a new playground in the park’s lower half (Tighe compares the current playground there to “something out of a Stephen King horror movie.”)
The arguments start over proposed additions like a ropes course, a new entrance on Wilson Blvd complete with a small parking lot and 103 new parking spaces in Upton Hill’s upper half, near its water park.
The last item on that list has attracted the most controversy, as it would require the removal of more than half of the aforementioned 115 trees in favor of thousands of square feet of pavement — a group dubbing itself the “Friends of Upton Hill” wrote on its website that Joni Mitchell warned of just an occurrence when she sang “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.”
“NOVA Parks has never made a convincing case for expanding parking at Upton Hill, which has a parking lot that is barely used for nine months of the year, when the water park is closed,” said Sada Aksartova, a Boulevard Manor resident. Her husband, Josh Handler, helps run the friends group, which notes that many of the trees set to be chopped down are several decades old.
Yet Tighe argues the new parking will help ease crowds at the park, avoiding the need for so many people to park on the street, and Gilbert says there’s a bit more nuance to consider regarding the trees to be cut down.
Of the 115 trees to be removed, he says 19 trees are already dead, while 31 are non-native trees, which he feels don’t add much to the area’s ecosystem. He points out that he hopes to plant dozens of new trees, shrubs and grasses elsewhere on the park to create an “oak/hickory forest” that he believes will represent a net positive for the county’s tree canopy.
Local activist Suzanne Sundberg believes Gilbert’s thinking amounts to: “We must destroy a forest to save a forest.”
“It’s degrading a park that’s just a little postage stamp of green in an ocean of parking lots,” Sundberg said.
She also fears that removing so many trees and replacing them with asphalt will worsen the already substantial stormwater management problems in the area. The friends group posted a series of videos earlier this month illustrating how huge amounts of water already flow off the park’s grounds.
But Gilbert believes the underground cistern included in plans for the new parking lot will alleviate the stormwater problems in the area, rather than exacerbate them. Furthermore, he feels those videos are misleading, as they were taken just after a heavy rainstorm.
Certainly, Gilbert has plenty of problems with the way the Friends of Upton Hill have conducted themselves. He believes the group’s name is a “complete misnomer,” dubbing it “a couple of individuals with an ax to grind” and “not a true friend’s group.” He feels the community has been broadly supportive of the project.
“We’ve worked very hard to work with the various community groups, but that doesn’t mean every individual is going to get everything they want,” Gilbert said. “And some people can understand that and some people clearly don’t.”
Sundberg believes there are plenty of people upset with the project, pointing to the new petition and work of the Arlington Tree Action Group to oppose it. Furthermore, she says that “if there are, indeed, a low number of citizens who are outraged, it’s likely because they have no idea what the plans are.”
“This whole process has been very opaque,” Sundberg said. “NOVA Parks has gotten so used to doing whatever the heck it wants… it barely posts any documents or makes any information available about this.”
Tighe charges that park officials have been “phenomenal partners every step of the way.” Other neighbors, however, are taking more of a wait-and-see approach, rather than coming out so strongly in favor of the park.
“I understand the objections from some… even if some people may be exaggerating points to serve their own conclusions,” said Brian Hannigan, president of the nearby Dominion Hills Civic Association. “Let’s follow the facts and see where they lead.”
A group calling itself ‘Friends of Upton Hill’ has created a website to oppose a plan for a new ropes course and a new parking lot at Upton Hill Regional Park in Arlington.
Upton Hill park hosts a water park, a mini golf course, batting cages, and walking trails. NOVA Parks — the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority — plans on adding 33,000 square feet of asphalt to the park in the form of a entrance road and parking spaces, as well as a “high adventure course” and other amenities.
The project cost is estimated at $3 million, according to a November presentation.
The park’s “friends” wrote on the site that they believe NOVA Parks has been deficient in maintaining the mostly wooded park and that “trash and invasive species are taking over the forest.”
Preferring that the park authority shift its focus from bigger parking lots to forest restoration and facilities maintenance, the group quoted Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi, writing that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
“NOVA Parks should focus on restoring the forest, removing trash and invasives, and improving maintenance of the existing facilities — the water-park, miniature golf, batting cage, playground and picnic pavilion — to make for a more pleasant and attractive park experience,” the website says.
This past fall, however, a renewed effort to combat the invasive species was undertaken at the park, according to the Arlington Sun Gazette.
NOVA Parks representatives presented the Upton Hill plan to the Arlington County Board on Nov. 28. Paul Gilbert, the NOVA Parks executive director, asserted that the parking lot expansion would not “impact the natural resources.” He said that the ropes course, with sweeping views of Arlington, would be a marquee feature for park and for the county at large.
Gilbert noted that the existing parking lot is packed in the summer months. However, the Friends of Upton Hill website argued that the lot is nearly deserted during chillier months of the year.
“We started our group because NOVA Parks is more bent on paving over Upton Hill Park than preserving it as parkland,” wrote says the Friends of Upton Hill website. “In the Seven Corners area we need to keep and improve every existing square foot of green space rather than add yet another parking lot — particularly one that sits empty for three quarters of the year.”
An email sent to a listed Friends of Upton Hill email address was not immediately returned.
A “high adventure” ropes course that allows users to swing at the same level as treetops is one of several improvements set for Upton Hill Regional Park.
The park (6060 Wilson Blvd) in Seven Corners, will add a ropes course near its pool. The courses typically have sections constructed in trees or made of utility poles, and are designed to be a challenging activity. The park already has batting cages, mini golf, pools and trails.
In a presentation to the Arlington County Board last month, executive director Paul Gilbert of the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, which manages Upton Hill, said the “high adventure course” has been a priority of people surveyed in the park for two years.
“You’ll be able to go all the way up, essentially, to the tree line and get a stunning view out over Arlington from there,” he told the Board. “We’re really excited. We think this will be a signature feature, something that in Visit Arlington promotions, you’ll probably have pictures of people up there and the wonderful views.”
In addition, that area of the park near the existing swimming pool is set for a new building to handle ticket sales for the course and the batting cages, with a section of that new structure available to rent for private events. The area would also get new outdoor seating and 91 new parking spaces.
Meanwhile, the area of the park near its entrance from Wilson Blvd is also set for a revamp. Gilbert said NOVA Parks will add a “high-end” playground, renovate the bathroom building and add new trails, seating areas and game tables.
Gilbert added that the authority is looking to add more lighting, and build a new entrance off Wilson Blvd with a small parking lot at its base, with the current driveway changed for trail use.
“It will be a very dynamic, interesting area,” Gilbert said, noting the authority’s desire to make that part of the park “sort of more of an urban place to hang out.”
But the $3 million plan has already come in for criticism from some quarters. Local activist Suzanne Smith Sundberg said not enough has been done to assess the impact on the park’s trees, planning for transportation needs has been inadequate, and there is a lack of transparency in the way NOVA Parks collected its survey data.
“By adding a new driveway, with an additional curb cut on Wilson Blvd, plus nearly an acre of paved parking, NVRPA will degrade one of the few remaining natural areas in Arlington County,” she wrote.
She added that more should have been done to engage with those who live in the nearby buildings like the Patrick Henry Apartments and the Seven Corners Apartments, among others.
“Whereas I sympathize with NVRPA’s need to generate more revenue, monetizing scarce natural land by converting it into developed land (particularly in an area that is already heavily developed) seems like a very high price to pay for a questionable gain,” Sundberg wrote in a lengthy email provided to ARLnow.com. “Without more precise information, it is difficult to see how this project makes sense from an environmental or economic standpoint as currently envisioned.”
For his part, Gilbert said the project will not interrupt natural resources already in the park. The plan still needs approval from the Virginia Department of Transportation — which controls Wilson Blvd near the park — as well as site plan approval from the county.
Images 1-3 via NOVA Parks presentation.
More than 2,000 local children benefitted from a summer program sponsored by the company that manages highway toll lanes in the region.
Transurban, which manages the high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and will manage the soon-to-be-extended I-395 HOT lanes, donated $18,000 to its Outdoor Kids Fund.
The fund supported outdoor programs and environmental education for kids who attended summer camps at Upton Hill Regional Park in Arlington and Cameron Run Regional Park in Alexandria. Attendees learned about water safety and the environment, then celebrated the end of camp with a day at Upton Hill.
They were joined on their last day by officials from Transurban, as well as representatives from the parks’ managers the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, Arlington’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Arlington County Board vice chair Katie Cristol.
“NOVA Parks is a tremendous regional asset, and kudos to Transurban for providing a grant that will benefit many kids in Arlington and Alexandria,” said County Board chair Jay Fisette in a statement.
More from a press release:
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks), Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation, Vice Chair of the Arlington County Board Katie Cristol and Transurban – the Virginia Department of Transportation’s partner on the 395 Express Lanes project, today joined area children at Upton Hill Regional Park to celebrate the Outdoor Kids Fund which was supported by Transurban this summer. The program provides enhanced outdoor experiences and environmental education for two thousand children who attend summer camps in Arlington and Alexandria.
In addition to a day at the waterpark at the end of camp, the children learn about water safety, and many of them get to experience hands-on environmental education. The two main waterparks used for the program are Great Waves at Cameron Run Regional Park in Alexandria, and Ocean Dunes at Upton Regional Park in Arlington.
“NOVA Parks is a tremendous regional asset, and kudos to Transurban for providing a grant that will benefit many kids in Arlington and Alexandria,” said Jay Fisette, Chairman of the Arlington County Board.
“At a time of severe budget pressure, having Transurban partner with NOVA Parks to improve the summer experience of our children is invaluable. These types of partnerships create lasting memories,” said Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
“As the Virginia Department of Transportation’s partner on the 395 Express Lanes project, Transurban is committed to the safety and wellbeing of the Arlington and Alexandria communities near the Express Lanes project corridor. Transurban is proud to support NoVA Parks as they continue providing outdoor experiences and environmental education for the community,” said Leigh Petschel, Vice President, Operations, Transurban.
“We hope this program will allow Arlington and Alexandria to serve even more of their youth with these savings,” remarked Stella Koch, Chairman of NOVA Parks. “With need high and budgets tight, this gift from Transurban is wonderful,” she continued.
“Transurban is demonstrating great corporate citizenship by supporting this program that will help some children in need have a wonderful experience,” said Eileen Ellsworth, President of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia. “I love it when businesses and local and regional leadership come together to provide solutions,” she continued.
Photos via Facebook.
Despite the cries of many residents for more open, green space in the county, not all park goers are happy with the parks that currently exist in Arlington.
Among otherwise glowing reviews, there are a number of one, two or three star Yelp reviews of parks in Arlington, detailing the numerous problems some visitors experience.
Complaints ranged from the park’s design, lack of proper cleanup by park employees or that the park just didn’t have enough to offer.
Parks in Arlington aren’t alone in receiving negative comments. In honor of the National Park Service’s 99th birthday, the publication Mother Jones this week shared some not-so-nice reviews of national parks across the country, in a post entitled “I Can’t Stop Reading One-Star Yelp Reviews of National Parks.”
James Hunter Park
James Hunter Park (1299 N. Herndon Street) — the Clarendon dog park — is dog-friendly, and has an open lawn, water feature and a “plaza terrace,” according to the park’s website. However, one reviewer claims the park was not designed with dogs in mind.
LBJ Memorial Grove
The LBJ Memorial Grove is located off of Boundary Channel Drive by the Columbia Island Marina and is one of the many National Parks Service-run green spaces in Arlington. However, despite the intention of peace and tranquility, Yelp reviewers seemed to be disturbed by other visitors and the bathrooms.
The county describes Oakland Park (3705 Wilson Blvd) as a “quaint” park and a good picnic destination, according to the park’s website. This Yelp reviewer advises that visitors don’t touch the grass.
Benjamin Banneker Park
Benjamin Banneker Park (1701 N. Van Buren Street) is dog-friendly, has a playground and open, grassy space. However, the open space was a problem for this visitor who found the park muddy after it had rained a couple days before.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Located along the banks of the Potomac near Rosslyn, this park stands as a memorial for our 26th president. The park is close enough to Reagan National Airport that planes flying overhead may bother some visitors.
Upton Hill Regional Park
Upton Hill Park is located at 6060 Wilson Blvd. The park has a pool, batting cages and mini golf, but maintenance of the park was a problem for this reviewer.
An armed and masked man robbed the miniature golf stand at Upton Hill Regional Park (6060 Wilson Blvd) over the weekend.
The incident happened around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. Police say the man approached the stand, brandished a handgun, and told the clerk to empty the register. The clerk complied and the man took an undisclosed amount of cash before fleeing on foot and running through the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex.
A mini golf customer initially gave chase but was unable to keep up with the suspect, according to Arlington County Police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck. Numerous police officers, assisted by the Fairfax County Police helicopter, attempted to located the suspect, to no avail. The suspect remains at large.
Numerous mini golfers witnessed the robbery, but luckily no one was hurt and their rounds of putt-putt were uninterrupted.
“There were many patrons who were enjoying a round of mini golf when this incident occurred, who witnessed the event,” Sternbeck said. “Despite the robbery, the miniature golf course remained open for the remainder of the night.”
The suspect is described as by police as a “black male, approximately 5’8″ and 170-180 lbs… wearing a black mask, white sweater, and black pants.”
The Upton Hill miniature golf course touts itself as “one of the best courses in Northern Virginia,” with “cascading waterfalls, aquatic gardens and one of the longest minigolf holes in the country.”
Fairfax County Police say they responded to the 2900 block of John Marshall Drive, in the Seven Corners area, around 6:15 a.m. for a report of a stabbing. There, they found a man dead and a woman injured inside an apartment.
Responding officers located the suspect nearby and took him into custody, according to a Fairfax County police spokesman. The suspect and the officer were hurt during the arrest. The officer, the suspect and the injured woman were all taken to a nearby hospital with what are only described as non-life-threatening injuries.
The incident is being investigated as a homicide.
The arrest of the suspect took place in or around Upton Hill Park in Arlington, according to Arlington County Police Department spokesman Dustin Sternbeck.
Update at 6:35 p.m. — Fairfax County Police have released the following press release about the crime.
Police are investigating an early morning homicide in the Falls Church area. Officers were dispatched to an apartment in the 2900 block of John Marshall Drive around 6:18 a.m. on Thursday, February 20, for a reported stabbing. They located an adult male deceased inside the apartment and an adult female with injuries. The suspect fled the apartment on foot prior to the officers’ arrival.
The police helicopter located the suspect hiding outside, near the apartment complex and led patrol officers to him. Both the suspect and one police officer were injured during the apprehension. The police officer, the suspect and the female victim were all transported to the hospital and treated for non life-threatening injuries.
The deceased has been identified as Alvaro Zepeda, 44, of 2903 John Marshall Drive, in Falls Church.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Crime Solvers by phone at 1-866-411-TIPS/8477, e-mail at www.fairfaxcrimesolvers.org or text “TIP187” plus your message to CRIMES/274637 or call Fairfax County Police at 703-691-2131.
Next week the water park at Upton Hill Regional Park will host one portion of what’s being called the “World’s Largest Swimming Lesson.”
At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 14, children will gather at Upton Hill (6060 Wilson Blvd) to take part in a swimming lesson that will be held at the same time as lessons at 500 other pools and aquatic facilities around the world. The event is part of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) “Pool Safely” campaign, a national public education effort.
Rep. Jim Moran (D), CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum and other local officials are expected to help kick off the world record attempt.
The event will attempt to break its own Guinness-certified record from last year. In 2011, more than 20,000 kids and adults on five different continents participated in the World’s Largest Swimming Lesson. While the goal of the event is to set a new world record, the ultimate goal of the campaign is to reduce child drownings, near-drownings and entrapments in pools and spas.
From a press release:
This year the campaign’s focus is on populations most at risk of drowning: children younger than 5 years old (who represent nearly 75 percent of child drowning fatalities) and African-American and Hispanic children between the ages of 5 and 14, who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drown at higher rates than white children. CPSC reports that annually there are 390 pool or spa-related drownings for children younger than 15.
Photo via Ocean Dunes Waterpark