Arlington Citizen-Journal

Arlington’s new High Oak Park: ‘From the beginning that’s what the neighborhood wanted’

The 12-acre site of a ratty apartment complex that was demolished a decade ago has found its new purpose.

Officially, High Oak Park becomes the city’s 91st park at a Nov. 15 dedication ceremony at the site, 2635 Wesley Drive in northwest Arlington.

But that’s old news to some of the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, who are already enjoying the park.

“That’s a good sign,” said Scott Fairman, the city’s park operations manager. “Not that they’re supposed to be there, but it’s hard to keep people away when they’re excited to use the park.”

The main features of High Oak Park’s $300,000 first phase are a concrete trail, about four-tenths of a mile long, and a fence along the park perimeter, along with some landscaping. The construction included retaining walls to make the trail more accessible to disabled people, said De’Onna Garner, city parks planning manager.

The first phase was funded by the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, the city’s repository for revenue it collects from leasing public land for drilling gas wells.

The city’s park master plan calls for future phases at High Oak to include a playground, pavilion and exercise stations, at a cost of about $250,000, said Matt Young, assistant director of park operations.

“The neighborhood was clear during the public involvement phase of the master plan development that they wanted to preserve as mush open space as possible for passive recreation,” Young said in an email. “We really do not anticipate any other improvements … except maybe some additional trees and landscaping.”

High Oak Park becomes part of the city’s total 4,710 acres of developed parks and future parkland. It still leaves the city a little short of the park acreage recommended by The Trust for Public Land, a 42-year-old nonprofit that develops parks and protects land for public use.

Arlington has 12.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, compared with the recommended 14.1 acres, Garner said.

“We’re looking at trying to increase our acres based on those numbers,” she said.

The city is seeking land to purchase in areas that are deficient in park space, using the standard of one neighborhood park within a half-mile of every neighborhood, Garner said.

High Oak Park has been a long time coming. The location, in the northwest corner of Bowen Road and Wesley Drive, was home to a 132-unit apartment complex that was built in 1970. In 2002 and 2003, the city received numerous complaints of code violations and crime, according to a city staff report.

“It was in horrible condition,” said David Zappasodi, executive director of the Arlington Housing Authority. “It contributed to a lot of crime and vandalism in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

High Oak Terrace Apartments failed city and federal inspections in 2003, and the tenants were relocated, which caused the property owners to default on their loan, the report said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development foreclosed in 2004 and sold the property to the city for a “nominal fee” later that year, and the city promptly demolished the complex, Zappasodi said.

But the deal came with strings. HUD rejected the city’s initial request to build a park and said it wanted whatever development the city pursued to have at least 132 housing units. So the city considered building another apartment complex.

“But I think that it’s safe to say that the surrounding neighborhood was not really supportive of a multifamily development on that site,” Zappasodi said.

The property sat dormant for several years until city officials took up the issue again and, during meetings with the neighborhood, began looking into single-family housing. HUD compromised, saying the city didn’t have to replace all living spaces on that site, as long as the remainder was replaced elsewhere in town.

“That was about the time the economy kind of tanked,” Garner said.

The city had recruited some residential developers to create concept plans for a single-family housing development on the site. But the recession deflated those plans.

“They’re in it for profit,” Zappasodi said. “They knew very well that there was no market for sales. So everything ground to a halt when that happened.”

In 2011, HUD relented on the park idea. “They were anxious to find a good working solution for [the neighborhood],” Zappasodi said.

“From the beginning that’s what the neighborhood wanted,” he said. “They wanted a park. It took years to get there, and now it’s about to become a reality. It’s exciting.”