Azalea gets overhauled after long public process

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A plan for the newly updated Azalea Park shows rearranged amenities and a new parking layout. (City Parks Department) 

How does a park grow? Many in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood can now count the ways.
After years of community input, planning, and grant-seeking, a series of improvements to Azalea Park is now under way, one of several major updates financed in part by a steady uptick in the parks and recreation department’s budget in recent years.

The $900,000 improvement process began in 2009, when the city solicited community input for a redesign plan for the 23-acre park, which borders I-64 in the southwest corner of the city. The changes proposed and now being implemented hit on a number of practical desires identified by locals, said city park and trail planner Chris Gensic.

The most noticeable change involves an amenities shuffle. Parking and play areas are currently deep in the park and relatively far from the entrance. Some families wanted to see both brought nearer to the main gate, Gensic said, so the city is swapping the playground and the fenced dog park, which will nearly double in size to include two large enclosures. Basketball courts will move up to a spot alongside the new parking lot, and a structure near the park’s reoriented softball diamond that currently serves as a concession stand will become restrooms. A picnic shelter adjacent to the new playground will house concessions.
The updates will take about two years to complete, said Gensic, but public works is already breaking ground on several projects.

The city is funding the bulk of the project, providing $750,000 over two years from a parks budget that has climbed from $7.9 million in FY 2010-2011 to $9.4 million in the current fiscal year.

But the parks department looked elsewhere to pay for other key updates. A Department of Forestry grant is covering the cost of a wooded rain garden near the parking lot, Gensic said. Matching grants will help build a new paved trail into the park from Azalea Drive, like the one that connects to Monte Vista Avenue, and more trails will formalize the paths park-goers currently use to access Moore’s Creek. A new gate and spruced-up entry come courtesy of funds diverted from the Old Lynchburg Road project.

In many ways, Azalea, which was acquired by the city in 1965, is typical of Charlottesville’s neighborhood parks, Gensic said—a remnant from a wave of mid-century development.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, “people came in and subdivided old farms, built a bunch of houses and gave the city the pieces at the bottom,” he said. That was the case with Azalea, which was cropland for many years, and still borders a farm that lies just across the county line.

Often the donated land was boggy, flood-prone, and generally unfit for building on. That means that with the exception of McIntire’s big parcels and a smattering of small Downtown greens, “most of our parks are sort of in the backyard of the city,” he said.

The fact that it’s one of several public spaces tacked onto the periphery of the city doesn’t make Azalea any less beloved to those around it. The process of rehabbing it has also inspired one resident to get more actively involved in city business than he ever expected he would.

Brian Becker moved to the neighborhood in 2009, just as plans for the new Azalea Park were coming together. A parent of young kids who loved the park, he found himself closely involved in the process of plotting the improvements.

“I never really had an interest in government from a political perspective,” he said, but the park inspired him to dive in and learn what he could. He joined the city’s Neighborhood Leadership Institute, getting a crash course in local government through weekly evening sessions. He’s become the voice of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association during the park planning process, relaying residents’ ideas and concerns to the parks department and bringing his neighbors news of the latest updates.

“We’re lucky to have a very active neighborhood association here, in a very large and active part of the city,” Becker said. The flip side is that there are a number of voices all trying to bend the ear of park planners. It helped to streamline communication.

“This is a tiered process,” he said. “It took a long time, and it was good to have someone who can speak to other members of the community.”

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