Thursday, September 17, 2009

Arlandria's Capital Improvement Plan: A Fractured Fairy Tale

If we could join Mister Peabody in his wayback machine, we could go back to that day in 2003 when neighborhood stakeholders got up early for a morning meeting just before the passage of the Arlandria Plan -- an effort on which, in various forms, the community had been working for nearly a decade. That effort involved looking at the neighborhood holistically; pursuing revitalization by creating the basis for raising the quality of life of everyone involved. To do this, the plan identified the desire to improve park and recreation opportunities, the need for parking improvements to support the small businesses and area affordable housing, problems with walkability and transit access, and even ideas to improve traffic flow. But many things -- many desirable things, such as better, pedestrian-oriented lighting -- were left out because costs were so high that funding seemed remote. So, at that 2003 meeting, an idea was floated: create a pool of funds to address the main priorities over the short to medium term and leave the rest to revisit in the future as things changed.

Later that year, Alexandria City Council followed this recommendation and included a fund for "Redevelopment of Arlandria" in the City's Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) on the order of $500,000. The money wasn't scheduled to be immediately available, but, rather, in a few years, by which point plans to use the money would be firmed up. City staff ranked the fund as having the highest priority, "Essential".

City staff, meanwhile, drafted an implementation schedule for the Arlandria projects. A number of low cost items, and a number of higher cost items which utilized other funds, were accomplished and rightly checked off the list. City staff continued to hold a series of meetings in those early days and the community was kept abreast. In 2006, it was announced that the half million dollars would become available later that year at which point a number of streetscape improvements could be implemented; a list that included park benches, bus shelters and a few bigger items such as intersection enhancements and improvements to the entrance to Four Mile Run Park.

And that's when the fairy tale broke. There were no new updates and no responses to questions regarding the status of the plan. The City budget, with its hundreds of pages easily accessible online, merely said, "A feasibility study has been completed for the Plan-recommended improvements to the gateway into the City of Alexandria, connections to Four Mile Run Park, and pedestrian safety improvements." Updates to the implementation schedule stopped and many of the staff and citizens who worked together for years, simply moved on or moved away.

Now, word comes that City staff is studying the intersection of Mt Vernon Avenue & West Glebe Road in an effort to improve the pedestrian crossing and traffic flow. A public meeting has been scheduled for next Wednesday the 23rd (7pm at Cora Kelly Rec Center), but nothing about that study is included in the the City's list of current engineering projects. Still missing is discussion about the much anticipated streetscape improvements or the corrections to the Four Mile Run park entrance. The feasibility study, reportedly finished a while back, is also still absent.

So what happened to the streetscape plan? Attention has waxed and waned along with community efforts to draw attention to areas of deterioration. A few crosswalks have appeared, some trash cans and a few benches were put in neighborhood parks. But those benches were quickly taken away when 'problems' erupted (drinking, vagrancy and suspected drug dealing). Blighted parks have been cleaned up and fallen again back into disrepair. Nothing on the order of major changes that would signal the City's interest in the neighborhood where years of accumulated neglect are still evident in the disinvestment at many properties. And the money? In the current budget, the Arlandria Revitalization money still remains unspent. Whereas, new pocket parks in Del Ray will have half that much spent just this year alone, Arlandria is still struggling to get answers.

What does the current CIP say? Well it says, what the CIP has said for years:

Pedestrian improvements at Russell Road and Mount Vernon Avenue were completed. Additional revitalization projects are planned for the area which includes: pedestrian bulb-outs and crosswalks along Mount Vernon Avenue and East Glebe Road, installation of speed tables on Four Mile Run and Old Dominion Boulevards, installation of pavers along sidewalks on Bruce Street, Gateway improvements, and connections to Four Mile Run Park and improvements to the Commonwealth Avenue/Mount Vernon Avenue intersection. Short and long term safety improvements are planned at the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue and West Reed Avenue.

But wait, what's that? There's something new for FY2010: "improvements to the Commonwealth Avenue/Mount Vernon Avenue intersection." That wasn't there in the 2009 CIP (page 8).

Maybe that's the answer: The money rolled further down the Avenue.


Excerpted from Warwick Village Voice, March 2004

What's the moral to this story?

When I watched them as a kid, I knew that the Fractured Fairy Tales weren't meant to teach any life lessons. They were just pure, silly, cynical humor. One story would end with a moral such as, "a Mule and his honey are soon parted". Another about a kingdom where not much changed would say that that "only goes to prove that fairy tale endings can be completely arbitrary".

Well, maybe the absurdity of it was a pretty important life lesson after all.
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