A large contingent of neighbors living adjacent the Big Chimneys Park in downtown Falls Church showed up at Monday’s F.C. City Council meeting to plead for full funding and swift development of the long-neglected park, and their efforts paid off.
The Council had learned the week before that cost estimates for fixing up the park with playground equipment, walkways, lighting, benches and tables, mosquito abatement and important improvements to its water drainage system, were considerably over budget, and that the result might be that fixing its stormwater and drainage system would be about the only thing it could afford.
In short, $1 million had been allocated for the park’s improvements and, according to City Manager Wyatt Shields, the estimates came in at $350,000 more than that. A proffer from developers of the adjacent Harris Teeter/301 West Broad project prompted the City Council to allocate $1 million for the long-overdue improvements to the park in 2016.
Charlie O’Hara, who has served on the City’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board for 28 years, appealed to the Council at its work session Oct. 15 that there are 1,035 dwelling units within a third of a mile of the park out of the City’s total of 5,000.
But the park has been unimproved since it was originally supposed to be included in the ambitious $315 million City Center project which fell through in 2006 due to the Great Recession. It has remained situated between the back of a bowling alley and the back of Winter Hill townhouses, and many of the neighbors who spoke up Monday night complained that it is more foreboding than inviting, especially with no lighting after dark.
Danny Schlitt, the City’s director of Parks and Recreation, said that $200,000 for playground equipment, $48,000 for a pavilion and $3,000 for benches could bring the park up to speed, along with improved water drainage (it is the equivalent to a bog at the park’s south end, Shields noted), and lighting.
With the large contingent showing up at this Monday’s meeting, Shields announced that the City had received the second payment of $235,000 for its sale of the former Mailboxes building at West Broad and Maple, and that the money could be applied to the Big Chimneys Park improvements.
According to a City Hall report, “As laid out in the City’s Master Plan, the purpose of the park is to preserve and protect natural resources, and provide a variety of passive and active recreational activities for all age groups…The original objectives of the renovation included replacement of the outdated or broken play equipment, construction of an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant entrance from the Winter Hill community, addressing the stormwater drainage issues at the south end of the park, preservation of the existing healthy trees where possible, maintaining a large open space for unstructured recreational use, providing larger paths through the park to accommodate the pedestrian traffic between the north and south ends of the park, removal of invasive plants, providing additional landscape buffers and planting beds throughout the park, providing better visibility into the park, installing lighting along the paths, updating historical signage and placing in a more prominent location, providing a gateway entrance feature along with Annandale Road entrance, installing a pavilion, providing a raised crosswalk across Annandale Road, and expanding the streetscape into Annandale Road.
With the cost estimates for these coming in $350,000 above the $1 million allocated, City staff had made major cuts for review that included the elimination of site lighting, an effort that was completed last June.
That’s what precipitated the mobilization of families living adjacent park, and with Shields’ news of $235,000 in new money, the Council was persuaded to allocate the added $350,000 needed for its full renovation following over an hour of public testimony advocating for it.
The safety, the connectivity of the park as a link between Broad Street and the new S. Maple commercial area (centered on the Target there), the removal of insect invasions and making the park into an attractive and desirable destination for families in the area, as well as historic features there, were all addressed during the public hearing.
The term, “Big Chimneys,” refers to the fact that at the location once stood an inn which historians have determined was the earliest structure built by European settlers in the 2.3 square mile Falls Church area over 300 years ago.