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Should Arlington transform Quincy into its own Central Park?

It's been about 35 years since Arlington graduated from backwater suburb to forward-looking city. It's missing one final piece to complete its transformation: a great central park.


Concept sketch of potential park from Richard Fitzhugh. Click to enlarge.

Arlington has all the trappings of a true urban area. There are high-rise office buildings, a walkable, mixed-use Metro corridor, tens of thousands of apartments, scores of exotic restaurants, active retail streets, even several live theaters and jazz bars. But it doesn't have a central park.

Arlington also has many green spaces, but they are essentially a collection of suburban fixtures. A mix of natural stream valley corridors, sports fields, school grounds, and Potomac River parkway frontage, Arlington's green spaces don't serve the same function as an urban city park.

A central park is the kind of community space that is nice to be in and share with others, regardless of use or purpose. It's a place with terrific curving paths, handsomely edged; pleasing benches and memorable light stanchions. A place with a mix of beautiful trees properly kept up; bushes, hedges and grassy areas, maybe even splashes of flowers; a pond and a bridge. And not a single chain-link fence. It's a place that's truly special to go for a picnic, to walk hand-in-hand, to show out-of-town visitors.

At a minimum, a central park for Arlington should look something like Lafayette Park, the ornamental square across from the White House. Arlington could do even better than that by evoking some of the great feeling of New York's Central Park on a smaller scale.

Fortunately, Arlington already has a great, central 12-acre location for this park, and it's already publicly owned: Quincy Park.

Bounded by N. Quincy Street, Washington Boulevard, N. Nelson Street, and 10th Street, and right between Ballston and Virginia Square, Quincy Park is home to the Central Library. The park is adjacent to dense residential neighborhoods with hundreds of yard-less residents, near thousands of daytime lunch-eating workers, flat without geological or hydrological constraints, close to Metro, and already has quite a few impressive trees.

What would it take to rebuild Quincy into a memorable, ornamental, walking city park?

A better boundary. The park needs a beautiful perimeter edge consisting of an appealing, wide sidewalk and an appropriate defining mixture of wall, fence, and hedge. As Frederick Law Olmsted pointed out 140 years ago when he designed New York's Central Park, a park's boundary and entrances set the tone for the visitor's entire experience.

Water. A central park should contain a generous water element. This could happen in a number of ways: a significant sized lake, or perhaps two ponds joined by a brook, or a non-flowing canalway traversed by a graceful bridge or two, or at the very least a fountain.

Fewer sports fields. The park could still contain a couple of tennis and basketball courts, a playground, and possibly even one ballfield, but only in a carefully designed, unobtrusive fashion. (And lets get rid of those junky storage buildings and utility boxes, too.) Elegant features for other users need to take precedence over sports facilities in a central park, while the county can satisfy the need for playing fields elsewhere.

Less parking. The entire gravel parking area in the northwest corner should go. And since the library has underground parking, perhaps half of its outdoor spaces could also be taken out to allow room for more natural features.

Could this vision become a reality? Yes, if enough people speak up for it.

Of course, it won't be easy. Crowded Arlington needs sports venues, and Quincy Park is well used for tennis, soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, and more. But the school board just voted to construct a new softball field on the campus of nearby Washington-Lee High School, thus providing the opportunity to remove the existing softball field at Quincy. If Arlington pursues a central park, it can work to add other playing fields to replace any lost here.

Even redesigning the acre-sized southwest corner of the park into an appealing entrance way could revolutionize people's sense of the park and stimulate a conversation about what to do with the rest.

All kinds of parkland, from sports fields to wilderness corridors, deserve support. But an urban central park is something different, something unlike any of the 1300-plus acres of current open space in Arlington and it deserves support, too. Arlington won't be a true city until it happens.

Peter Harnik is director of the Center for City Park Excellence of the Trust for Public Land. Before joining TPL in 1998, Peter cofounded and served as vice president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and he is a founder and board member of the City Parks Alliance, which works to increase investment in urban parks. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. 

Comments

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What an immeasurably stupid idea. In its current configuration, that park is extremely well used. There is almost always people playing in that park. Baseball. Softball. Volley ball. Basketball. Bicycles. Tennis. And this park is used by next door W&L. So here is a bad idea - the park is so successful, so well utilized - lets redesign it and take away all the fields!

by Wilbur on Oct 11, 2012 10:45 am • linkreport

I'm sure this may already have been pointed out, but isn't it "transform" in the title: "Should Arlington tranform Quincy into its own Central Park?"

by dc denizen on Oct 11, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

dc denized: Ack! I'm getting senile! Fixed.

by David Alpert on Oct 11, 2012 10:50 am • linkreport

I think the number of sports fields is fine. But regarding the water element, a pond is nice but I'd prefer a fountain/someplace that can be used. If you can't take your kids to the pool just let them run around in the fountain. Water play grounds are fun.

And the library should do something about the surface parking. I've never seen it close to full and the street also has plenty of spaces. That may change when the old funeral home lot gets built on but that shouldn't be a huge impediment.

That may be another issue down the line though as a big building is slated to go up there and it won't be so easy to see the park from Fairfax Drive but again that's a relatively minor concern.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 10:50 am • linkreport

Actually, and I didn't see this mentioned in the article but a performance area would be nice for outdoor concerts/plays and screenings. Or space to set up a removable stage. Then we can work on filling in some of those back lots to have commercial buildings face the park and really help the urban outdoor room feel rather than the parking lots/loading docks that you currently see.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

"Elegant features for other users need to take precedence over sports facilities in a central park"

Why? Central Park has quite a few well used sports facilities. Why can't they be elegantly designed and central to the purpose of the park?

by Tim Krepp on Oct 11, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

I'm a DC resident but my wife used to live in Arlington and we often go to the library or to play tennis on their courts. I think the park is extremely well-used right now, and wouldn't want to see it change just for the sake of "we're a developed place and we need a park that shows that." If it ain't broke...

by sb on Oct 11, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

"Fewer sports fields... the county can satisfy the need for playing fields elsewhere."

Yes in Fairfax County were the rest or Arlington already plays sports. Bad idea.

by RJ on Oct 11, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport

"And the library should do something about the surface parking. I've never seen it close to full and the street also has plenty of spaces."

What?! Every time I go the library lot is full. I'm never there for more than 10 minutes so I don't park in the garage, but what the library could so (if the garage has the capacity) is only leave like 10 spots outside for short-term parking, maybe 15 minutes or less. I've been meaning to send a suggestion to them to have some set aside for short-term, as I sometimes spend more time trying to find a spot than I do to just run in and pick up a book from the hold shelf.

by Colleen on Oct 11, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

Well I think the concept looks good.

by NikolasM on Oct 11, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

This proposal is makes no sense because Arlington is not configured like Manhattan. Arlington's high-density urban areas are long, thin strips only a few blocks wide. The rest of the county is suburban, and has plenty of parks to boot. So there's not really a need for a large urban park. And much of the appeal of Central Park stems from its stark contrast to the hyper-density of Manhattan, which is further reinforced by the hard boundaries of water bodies on all sides of the island. Arlington doesn't share those features, so the feel of Central Park couldn't be replicated.

If you're going to import an element of urban planning from elsewhere, you should choose one from a city that has more in common with Arlington. Manhattan, and New York as a whole, is pretty much sui generis.

by PeakVT on Oct 11, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

Actually, Arlington is going to build a fantastic park, with water features just 1 block away from this location: http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/parksrecreation/scripts/planning/MasterPlanning/page65582.aspx

by Arlington on Oct 11, 2012 11:37 am • linkreport

Colleen,

That's reasonable and my experience is anecdotal and limited to weeknights/weekends. But I think your idea is workable and that any plan with the park at large should keep the option on the table of doing something else with that parking lot.

Peak VT,
You've made me curious as to what would be a better comparison. I had though of the central park analogy as the main, go-to #1 park when you think of Arlington rather than specifics of the form of central park and making that work in the Arlington context.

by drumz on Oct 11, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

A huge amount of Arlington County is already open space - with a large and famous greensward which gave the the county its name - Arlington Cemetery.

by GWalum on Oct 11, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

I agree with Peak VT. This location is not central and the north side of the park is bordered by single family homes. What we need is many great public spaces that are context sensitive, not a single showpiece park. Arlington has many diverse neighborhoods from quite suburban single family homes to bustling dense urban corridors. Our parks mimic that diversity and should continue to do so.

by JohnB on Oct 11, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

Quincy Park seems well-used as it is. There is clearly a need for those kinds of athletic facilities in the area. I can see making the case for tweaking its design, but I can't see how a wholescale redesign is warranted - particularly given the need to then accommodate those athletic uses elsewhere.

How about focusing on parks that are underutilized, like this one a block away?

by Alex B. on Oct 11, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Also: just as a comparison of scale:

Central Park - 843 acres

The entire Rosslyn-Ballston corridor - 1,023 acres (last page of PDF)

If we want to talk about urban parks, that's one thing - but let's go for apples to apples scale comparisons.

by Alex B. on Oct 11, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

I'm pretty sure the Cemtary and County are named for the same thing -- Arlington House.

Parking at the library is a nightmare. A lot of the sports teams use it. There is a two hour limit, although you can get a free pass at the library if you use it longer.

And where is Arlington going to put the recycling if they take the gravel lots away?

The primary thing stopping people from enjoying the park are the homeless.

by charlie on Oct 11, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

I'd rather have a ballfield than a "generous water element" any day. Those ballfields get used by kids and adults. A pond, you just look at.

by Tom Veil on Oct 11, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

As an active member of the Arlington County Tennis Association and former Board member, I can't support any proposal for Quincy that takes away athletic fields. Quincy has the most well used fields in the county and the central, metro accessible location of these fields are vital to the many tournaments and high profile community uses they garner. I also know that Arlington Parks and Rec is short of funds to maintain the courts and fields they currently have and I would not want to see scarce resources diverted from maintenance to a capital project.

The idea for the park is great, as long as it doesn't reduce athletic facilities or divert funding from other important needs.

Btw, the park in arlington I use to impress out of towners is the one next to Iwo Jima, where the Netherlands bell tower is located. One of the best views in the DC area.

by Falls Church on Oct 11, 2012 2:04 pm • linkreport

With all due respect, this is a very bad idea. Arlington does not need a big central park so people can get away from the skyscrapers and get a look at the sun, as New York does. Quincy Park is surrounded mostly by single-family homes and three-story townhouses. Nor does Arlington need to be "a true city," whatever that means. Different cities satisfy the need for green space in different ways. In some cities, it takes the form of a giant urban park. In Arlington, it is done by means of dozens of small, neighborhood parks, with different facilities in each - some have tennis, some have basketball, some have playground equipment, etc. Arlington residents make heavy use of the athletic facilities in the County's many parks, with Quincy Park being a particularly well-used example. I live a few blocks away from Quincy Park, and the athletic facilities seem to be in almost constant use whenever I go by. I don't use the athletic fields myself, so I'm not just taking a position out of self interest, but I have to assume that if the fields are in use, then they are serving a need of the people.

by Mike on Oct 11, 2012 2:41 pm • linkreport

Mr. Harnik's liking for parkland is clear- he prefers passive use over active recreation in this space. Quincy Park is, however, a park dedicated to recreation- baseball and softball fields, soccer, volleyball, tennis and basketball. It is a place where residents go out to throw around a football on Sunday afternoons or undergo the rigors of bootcamp before and after work.

I love spending time in quiet parks, but Quincy Park is 12 acres astride the densely populated Ballston-Clarendon corridor and should be managed to meet the recreational needs and wants of the neighborhood and county residents.

by DC Trails on Oct 11, 2012 3:46 pm • linkreport

Passive parks have their place, and aren't always all that "passive" (walkers, casual frisbee players, etc are active, not just people in organized sports)

that said, the layout of the dense parts of ArlCo is different from Manhattan, as stated above.

Given the battle over the acquatics center, I dont think Arlco is ready for a fight over $$ for another park anyway.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 11, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

What about a square. This is very park-y and doesn't appear to be designed to support central gathering place functions. Instead it appears to be more contemplative and passive.

I would offer a counter example, perhaps more appropriate for Arlington's Downtown, of Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.

It's a park, but the space is also organized to support events, such as the Downtown Salt Lake Farmers Market, which frankly, has to be one of the top 10 farmers markets in the U.S.

I haven't ever read Arlington's Parks, Rec. & Cultural Resources plan. I don't know how they categorize types of parks, and the reality is that Arlington also benefits from the parks in that NOVA Parks District, for more regional serving larger sized parks.

I think Arlington needs a "downtown" space, sure, and I'd recommend the parks framework from the Buckhead Collection plan by AECOM as an alternative to what you lay out.

by Richard Layman on Oct 11, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

@Layman

I like your town square idea and would offer up Gateway Park (if that's the name of the one above 66 in Rosslyn) as both needing a redesign and a good candidate for a town square or downtown space. While they have some nice events there like the jazz festival, it could get more use given its central location. It also needs a redesign to make it more inviting.

by Falls Church on Oct 11, 2012 11:13 pm • linkreport

"Elegant features for other users need to take precedence over sports facilities in a central park, while the county can satisfy the need for playing fields elsewhere."

Uh, Peter, kids and adults need space to play and exercise more than they need your idea of elegance. Quincy Park has some of the most heavily used ballfields in the entire county. Come out and see how many fields they squeeze into that space for flag football this weekend. One new softball field for W-L does nothing for all these other activities. Every available field in Arlington is already heavily programmed during every sports season. Try talking to local sports league directers, or the parks department, before you publish nonsense like this.

by Keep the Ballfields on Oct 12, 2012 10:05 am • linkreport

Gateway Park is another in need of big-time help. It happens that AECOM (my favorite parks planning group, Glatting Jackson, was acquired and merged into AECOM) is working on parks issues as they relate to Columbia Pike and I know they've had some broader discussions with ArCo in terms of "level of service" issues. I don't know if they are discussing broader parks planning issues beyond Columbia Pike though.

(It's not that the TPL city parks unit is bad--Peter Harnik heads it up. But I do think that they have an overly circumscribed approach to urban parks issues, at least based on this blog entry, an earlier "position" paper commissioned by the NoMA BID, and other stuff. That being said I think TPL is great and I've included links to their stuff on my blog for years.)

by Richard Layman on Oct 12, 2012 10:09 am • linkreport

worst...idea...ever.

Lafayette Park as a model? That would be great if it had a view of the leader of the free world's residence. Tourists and protesters are what give Lafayette its vitality.

When you create a passive park in an urban area with no tourist attraction next door, filled with "elegant features for other users," do you know who those "other users" are? And what they're "using"? I prefer athletes, thanks.

by Novanglus on Oct 12, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

Quincy Park is well used for tennis, soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, and more.

Elegant features for other users need to take precedence over sports facilities in a central park

The sports facilities are well used, so we should get rid of them and replace them with elegant unplanned features? That doesn't make any sense.

Looking at the site on Google Maps, it looks like there is a bunch of unprogrammed tree-covered space that could be utilized better. Move the volleyball court so it is situated better with the other sports facilities, and you have a large area to create contemplative space.

by MLD on Oct 12, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

Interesting idea wrong location. The best area to create a "downtown" space is at the Courthouse Metro stop. Of course, the problem with that would be where would all many of the cops and county workers park. Not sure, how much ability there is to create an underground parking lot there and then build a "park" there. But, that is the most centrally ideal location.

by Burger on Oct 12, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

Burger -- that's exactly the plan:

"The plan is to turn the large surface parking lot adjacent to the county administration building at 2100 Clarendon Blvd. into an underground parking garage to facilitate the creation of a public plaza, more ground-level retail and more office and residential space."
http://arlington-va.patch.com/articles/arlington-eyes-acquisition-of-building-to-launch-courthouse-square-redevelopment

by Novanglus on Oct 12, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

Stop trying to Prospect Park Quincy Park. Arlington's not a mini Brooklyn and doesn't desire to be.

by Mike O on Oct 13, 2012 8:34 am • linkreport

What's so central about a plot of land with only 3 bus lines serving it, 2 of which don't run on the weekend, and is a half mile from the nearest metro station?

by Rick on Oct 13, 2012 9:46 am • linkreport

"Elegant features for other users need to take precedence over sports facilities in a central park, while the county can satisfy the need for playing fields elsewhere."

Just because the county CAN satisfy the need for playing fields elsewhere doesn't mean it should. Access to ball fields and tennis courts for W - L High School is a very good use of the space. I was in marching band at a high school where the football field wasn't near the school - it was a major logistical problem to get the band to the football field for games. I can't imagine that it would help baseball and softball teams to have to go further away to for practice and games.

I agree with the people who think renovating Gateway Park would make more sense -- that's a space that's close to two bridges, a Metro station and several traffic arteries.

by miseaujeu on Oct 17, 2012 7:22 pm • linkreport

What a ridiculous idea. I am at Quincy park on a wed. Night along with 300+ or so other people. Do you really think 300 people would be staring at a fountain on an evening midweek? If you want Central Park there is a solution -- move to NYC!

by Mom on Oct 17, 2012 7:37 pm • linkreport

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