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.