Coming a few weeks on the heels of my article about the well-known Adopt-a-Highway program, I encountered a slightly less familiar (but none too surprising) example of another exercise in civics: the Adopt-a-Park.
In this case, the sign reveals a tribute to Bean, Kenney, & Korman, a law firm that has adopted a pocket park in Arlington County, Virginia, right across the river from Washington DC. Arlington, a jurisdiction I have featured many times before, is one of the smallest, most densely populated, and wealthiest counties in the country. It used to be part of the old, original boundaries of the District of Columbia, before the 1847 Retrocession returned the 31 square miles on the south side of the Potomac river back to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which Virginia quickly dedicated as Arlington County, after the prominent Arlington-Custis home that today presides over Arlington National Cemetery. This white sign, located at the intersection of Clarendon Boulevard and North Barton Street, references a verdant little triangle carved from the remaining land on a busy block of which about 70% is comprised of commercial buildings and their associated parking. The pocket park referenced here comprises the residual land.
It wasn’t always a park that law firms could adopt, and it doesn’t appear that it will remain this way forever. At present, it features a few canopied tables with seats, three mature street trees, concrete benches, separated space for a bocce court, and a small well-kept lawn. But in 2009, it was a tiny parking lot surrounded by an ugly chain-link fence. And a few years later, the parking lot had ostensibly closed, falling into weed-grown neglect. At some point around late 2013, civic advocates decided to intervene, sprucing up the pavement, removing the fence, installing a retaining wall with landscape, and adding some canopied seating. The Google Map currently refers to it as Clarendon-Barton Interim Open Space, and even features a mildly informative capsule on the County webpage. Recognizing that a small, underutilized parking lot had become neglected, the County took over the land for interim recreation until a buyer comes along to transfer it to a higher and better use. Recognizing that the pocket park never intended to become permanent, the repurposed space features elements from other Country park sites—boulders, a dumpster, planting soil, the furniture—with the intention that it could get relocated easily to a permanent recreational site in the future.
In a county with abundant green space—the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Arlington National Cemetery, and Theodore Roosevelt Island attract hundreds of thousands of visitors—a pocket park like this will never be a municipal priority. But if it can continue to eschew the neglected appearance that it suffered for a few years after the parking lot owner abandoned it, at least it accommodates nearby office workers who eat lunch at the tables. And it creates a legitimate role for an Adopt-a-Park program that the County hosts. And this County role appears to be the greatest distinction between the better known Adopt-a-Highway and Adopt-a-Park; while highway stewardship comes together under a centralized corporation, the park approach is much more localized, with various municipal and county governments taking on the initiative to promote maintenance and trash pickup. I see no evidence of a unified Adopt-a-Park program that recruits state involvement. This makes sense: whereas highways are typically state or federal entities, any tier of government can manage parks. And urban pocket parks are usually under the domain of a city; the fact that Arlington is a county makes it an outlier, especially since its government functions are overwhelmingly urban. In fact, most outsiders hear “Arlington Virginia” and probably think it’s a city. But, among other things, Arlington lakes a mayor or manager. It’s just a city-sized county.
The Arlington County Adopt-a-Park program is how Bean, Kenney, & Korman and other companies engage in stewardship of a green space just down the street from their front door; the main entrance to this law firm is a three-minute walk away from the Clarendon-Barton Interim Open Space. The pocket park may be small, but it’s high profile enough that it’s previous state, as a decaying parking lot, definitely hurt the image of a high-powered office/residential corridor that this portion of Arlington County (near the Court House Metro stop) has been trying to cultivate. Other park adopters in Arlington County include Girl Scot Troop 2971, Alpha Phi Alpha, the Waverly Hills Civic Association, and GEICO—in other words, a variety of private and nonprofit organizations.
But none of this answers the question: why is a wealthy County with abundant park resources using all this energy to solicit volunteers for such a tiny space—a fraction of the overall parks and recreation budget? Another sign thirty feet away from the Adopt-a-Park might help explain this.
This photo helps capture the features of the park a bit better: tables at the left, a landscaped parkway in the middle, and—what’s that?—a sandwich board for “Arlington Threading and Waxing” on the far right? How can a private business put a promotional sign in the middle of a park space? Doesn’t that further substantiate the argument against Adopt-a-Park and Adopt-a-Highway initiatives: that these businesses are essentially paying for free advertising in high-profile public land? Well, maybe the Clarendon-Barton Interim Open Space isn’t public land after all. Let’s take a closer look at that low-slung white sign in the foreground:
This “property” (not park) has been “generously provided” (not donated) by the “Republic of Korea”.
Korea?! How on earth?! Is this a Washington DC thing? Well, probably: while the Embassy of Korea is in Washington DC itself, plenty of other organizations supporting international relations sit peppered across the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. In this case, the Embassy of the Republic of Korea Chancery Annex operates a humble building on this same block, visible in the background on the right in the most recent Google Street View. And apparently it owned—and probably still owns—this former parking lot-turned-pocket park. For whatever reason, the Chancery Annex stopped needing the space for parking. Rather than sell it to Arlington County (the County may not have been interested), the County took on an intermediary, caretaker role as the site awaits a developer. And, rather than directly fund improvements itself, the County served as a broker for civic groups to maintain it, courtesy of the Adopt-a-Park program.
Lots of hands in this cookie jar. Too many can result in a diffusion of responsibility, let alone a plethora of unnecessary signs. But if every entity has clear skin in the game, it’s a miniature variant on checks and balances that assures a modestly scaled public-private partnership. If only every pocket park in America could bankrolled by another county.