When students from helped plant three black gum trees at the park across the street from their school recently, they became the latest in a devoted band of volunteers working to transform the once unused corner lot.
The city bought the site at the corner of Reed and Commonwealth avenues in July 2009, but beyond making the $850,000 investment in the property, it didn't plan to do anything more than scatter grass seed and mow regularly. It couldn't afford to, said Laura Durham, open space coordinator for Alexandria.
"It was clear that it was just going to be open space but not improved in the near-term future," Durham said.
But then folks from five nearby neighborhoods borrowed garden tools, collected cast-off plants and labored to create a garden and walkways where scraggly grass once grew in rock-hard soil. Over several seasons, the garden has grown with the contribution of trees from the city and Dominion Power, and the sweat and hard work of neighbors and other volunteers.
If you pass the park now on your way to the bike path or the shops on Route 1, you'll see a happy spot abloom with day lilies and marked by young trees that some day will be mighty.
"I think it's like magic," said Kevin Beekman, the creator of the blog, The Arlandrian, who lives nearby. "It's like pulling a rabbit out of your hat what the neighbors did."
He likes to call it the $200 park because that's how much it cost to rent the sod cutter he and other neighbors used to pull up the grass and establish the initial garden.
Now, the park features four maples, three crepe myrtles, 12 arborvitae and a trio of newly-planted black gum trees. On June 6, third-graders from Cora Kelly planted the trees as part of , an environmental energy program developed by Dominion to teach children about the importance of trees. The program started in 2007 and is offered in elementary schools where Dominion operates. The company provides curriculum materials as well as seedlings, lesson plans, stickers and instructional materials that help the students learn about the ecosystem.
Dominion sent four volunteers to the event to help the students and last October, to join forces with city staff and pull back weeds, plant several trees and re-establish paths at the park.
The team effort behind creating and sustaining the park and the passion and commitment of its backers has impressed Durham. "It's absolutely incredible especially when you think it was a substation," Durham said of the unnamed park which city officials refer to simply by its address: 3550 Commonwealth Ave. "It was definitely sweat equity, for sure."
Even the folks who worked to make the park a reality like Beekman and Jake Cuomo, the vice president of the Hume Springs Citizens Association, seem surprised by the results of their work.
"When it first started to take shape, it was raggedy and not great, but better," said Cuomo who lives half a block away from the park. It started to take shape with the additional help of the city and Dominion employees, he said. "Now, it's really a beautiful little spot."
There is still a large portion of the park that can be developed, but until the city has the money to implement any plans, there's nothing more for the neighbors to do than weed and water regularly. And, as it turns out, dream of what's to come.
Beekman likes to imagine a bocce ball court while others have suggested a volleyball court, small playing fields or a labryinth. Cuomo said he doesn't have an opinion, but his wife does: "My wife would like to see a community garden in there."