Plan to upgrade Simpson Park needs Del Ray support

By Bill Hendrickson

On January 13, the city released a draft plan for improvements to the city’s six major parks, including Eugene Simpson Stadium Park (Simpson Park) in Del Ray. It’s an impressive plan, and clearly a lot of hard work and creative thought went into it. The staff of the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities should be congratulated.

A lot of input from Del Ray residents was incorporated into the draft, and it’s clear the staff listened to what we wanted to see at Simpson. And community support will be urgently needed if the plan’s recommendations are to be implemented, because the estimated costs are high and the city already has a huge backlog in capital projects.

Del Ray residents can help in the near term by testifying on behalf of the plan at the Park and Recreation Commission’s hearing on Wednesday, February 20.

Last week, I had a discussion with Dana Wedeles of the park staff about how the DRCA might become involved in moving the process along and even helping to contribute a modest amount of its own funds as well as help raise additional private funds for various elements of the planned improvements.

She and I discussed two specific areas where the DRCA could potentially help in the near term. We will discuss this at the DRCA membership meeting on February 10.

First, the city and the DRCA could work together to develop a landscape design for the “green alley” of new trees and shrubs planned for the northeast section of the park.

Costs would then be determined as well as reasonable fundraising goals set, given the DRCA’s limited resources. But with a design in place, trees could be planted over time as money became available.

Second, Wedeles told me that the renovation of the playground at Simpson is already included in the city’s capital budget for fiscal year 2016.

“The playground renovation would be the ideal time to also renovate the adjacent passive space, though money has not been identified in the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) for that area,” Wedeles said. “I will discuss internally the idea to design both at once.” From that design, she said, the city could pay for the playground renovation, and DRCA could agree to help raise funds for the passive space renovation.

As identified in the plan, the passive space will include some “natural” play features, especially for children above age 5, which would complement the playground and make it feel cohesive in character and use.

I expressed some concern to Wedeles that a proposed widening of a north-south path through the park that borders the playground and the demonstration gardens planted and maintained by the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia could potentially affect the gardens. The path would be expanded from 4 feet wide to between 6 and 8 feet.

“The pathway can be wider (8 feet) where it is next to the playground,” she said, “but could taper to 6 feet if we find it would affect the gardens. When we implement this, we would work with the Master Gardeners to determine how best to minimize impact through the design.” She added that planned new parking for strollers in the northwest corner of the park would not have any impact on the gardens.

The draft plan calls for encouraging parking for soccer games along East Monroe Avenue and Mainline Boulevard. I expressed concern that those spaces might be taken by residents of the adjacent apartment complex that is currently being built. Will two-hour parking limits with enforcement be needed?

“The apartment complex will have a parking garage for residents,” she said. “Once the building is occupied, we will need to monitor the situation and see what sort of enforcement measures, if any, may be used while also working with our sports teams to manage the schedules in a way that minimizes the number of players and spectators that come to the park at once. We have found that the new gate at the southeast corner of the park has helped encourage players and spectators to park along Monroe instead of looking for spaces in the Simpson/YMCA lot.”

I also asked Wedeles whether implementation of the plan, which includes more pathways and expanded onsite parking, would mean more overall impermeable surface in the park.

“There are some areas of the plan that do require additional surfacing, including the pathways from Duncan Avenue and the northeast section of the park and the three proposed plazas at the Big Simpson bleachers, the plaza by the playground, and the plaza at the northeast corner,” she said. “If we use an impermeable surface, we would need to determine how to handle storm water within the park site. Alternatively, we can use a permeable surface such as grass pave or flexi-pave. These options are more expensive, but clearly minimize environmental impact.”

In addition to future implementation plans, Wedeles told me about some modest improvements that have already been made at Simpson as well as additional near-term improvements that are planned.

Stairs providing a new entrance to the park will be installed this spring between the basketball court and the dog park. “That money has already been allocated. We are just waiting to bring on the contractor,” she said.

However, a planned new field entrance and ramp to the soccer fields at the corner of Monroe and and Mainline Boulevard has been delayed. “The costs were higher than anticipated because of underground utilities,” Wedeles said. “We are determining the best way to proceed.”

Lighting for the dog park was approved in October 2013, and Wedeles said the staff is now working to determine how much funding the city could provide for its implementation in the fiscal year 2015 budget.

“In our discussions with the dog park group,” she said, “we agreed that they would fundraise for a portion of the lighting costs. We will get back to them with what those costs would be once the budget goes to Council. The intent is to have this complete within the 18-month period of the SUP (Special Use Permit).”

Lighting for the dog park is another area where the DRCA may be able to provide some modest funding or help with the fundraising effort.

The city is now proceeding with some other improvements to the dog park.

“The hill is currently being dragged for debris removal and then will be re-graded and covered with topsoil,” she said. “We have the upper portion of the dog park closed while this goes on. We anticipate the work to be done by March/April. This work is being done to address immediate safety concerns. In the long-term, we hope to work with the dog park group to fund a terracing project. The group would also like to try a different surfacing in the dog park, which is more expensive and exceeds what we currently have for dog-park surfacing in our operating budget.”

She added, “The only items we have not specifically addressed are dog exercise equipment, but that will be up to the group to fund. We also worked with the group last spring to plant new trees in the dog park, which they have since been maintaining.”

In addition to the new stairs, she said, “The city will be resurfacing the basketball court in the spring and renovating the Little Simpson press box within the next few months. The funds for these projects have already been allocated and are in queue in our work plan.”

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