Azalea Park was buzzing Thursday evening as the sun sank low in a pink-blue sky.
A few adults played a pickup game on the basketball court while a toddler and her grandmother looked on. Across the park, someone wore headphones while gardening in their rented plot.
With a new land acquisition, this popular city park is about to get a little bigger and, city parks staff hopes, even better.
For more than a decade, Charlottesville Parks & Recreation has hoped to expand the 23-acre park, and has been eyeing an adjacent, 8.6-acre slice of land — which is currently used for gardening — to do so.
It’s finally happening, with the $350,000 purchase made by support from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and a Virginia Land Conservation Fund matching grant.
The city hasn’t decided exactly what changes are in store for the park or its new acquisition, but the expansion could mean more recreation opportunities — like a bike track — and potentially more gardening space for refugee families. It will also mean a cleaner, healthier, more swim-able Moores Creek, which flows along the park’s current boundary.
Located on Old Lynchburg Road in the Fry’s Spring neighborhood and right on the boundary between Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Azalea Park is one of the city’s largest neighborhood parks. (Overall, Charlottesville has more than two dozen neighborhood, community, and regional parks.)
Currently, the park boasts a playground, a baseball and softball diamond with bleachers and a snack bar, community garden plots, and a fenced-in dog park where pups can play off-leash. A series of trails that are part of the city- and county-wide Rivanna Trail System, run along the creek edge of the park.
The city also owns nearby Azalea Park West, nearly 30 acres of land in Albemarle County that was once used for farming. The city purchased that parcel in 2016. But two things separate Azalea Park and Azalea Park West: Old Lynchburg Road, a major thoroughfare for folks commuting in and out of Charlottesville via I-64, and that 8.6-acre slice of land.
Acquiring that piece of land will allow the city to more effectively connect Azalea Park and Azalea Park West, either with a crosswalk or a bridge. There’s a need for sidewalks along Old Lynchburg, too, to make the park and its resources more accessible to residents, said city Parks and Trails Planner Chris Gensic.
“I didn’t know, but I’m excited about it,” said Larycia Hawkins about the expansion. Hawkins visits the park often with her dog Jasper, who likes to walk along the creek, stopping every few seconds to sniff.
The acquisition will also allow for simplification of the Rivanna Trail path system, which currently has to circumvent both Old Lynchburg Road and the once-private slice of land.
But that slice of land isn’t empty. For about a decade, community members have tended robust gardens there as part of the New Roots Farm urban agriculture program through the local office of the International Rescue Committee. (These gardens are separate from the Azalea Park garden plots rented out by the city.)
New Roots and the IRC had a generous lease agreement with the prior landowner, said Cecilia Lapp Stoltzfus, Manager of Food and Agriculture Programs for New Roots. The space has 60 plots tended by 30 different refugee families.
The gardens mean security for many of the farmers, said Lapp Stoltzfus. For some, it’s food security, where they can grow their own food to feed their families. For others, it’s financial security, because they sell produce at markets or directly to area restaurants.
One of those farmers, Deo Rai, has been gardening at New Roots since 2015, a year after her family arrived in the U.S. from Bhutan. In her plot, she grows things like luffa gourd, bitter melon, pumpkin, and mustard greens, which remind her of home.
“At harvest time, it looks like my country and makes me very happy,” she said.
Another farmer, Zakriia Thoky, has been gardening at this New Roots farm since it opened about a decade ago. “I like agriculture,” he said. “I read and learn a lot: how to plant seeds, plants, and water my vegetables. For me this is very important. For finances it’s very important. For everything.”
The city wants to make sure New Roots can either stay in its current space or move to Azalea Park West, said Gensic, and they have been in touch about a possible long-term lease agreement. But it’s up to the farmers where exactly in the park they’ll be.
New Roots has formed a steering committee to weigh the city’s offer to move the garden to Azalea Park West. Moving a three-acre garden is no small feat, but in Azalea Park West, not only could New Roots have more space for gardening, they’d be higher up out of the flood system, said Gensic. Currently, New Roots farm gets hit with a flood about once a year. It’s good for the soil, but it’s not good for garden infrastructure like fences and sheds.
Moving across Old Lynchburg Road would mean fewer flooding incidents, and therefore the chance to build those fences and sheds, as well as a greenhouse, restroom facilities, a picnic space or pavilion to host events and gardening classes, and solar panels for electricity generation, said Lapp Stoltzfus. It would also be safer for the gardeners’ chickens.
These are all things New Roots hasn’t been able to do, not just because of location, but because it’s had a year-to-year lease.
“We’re very hopeful that with the city’s purchasing of the property, that can help us think bigger and more long-term,” Lapp Stoltzfus added. “It’s opened up some new and exciting possibilities.
If New Roots relocates, it also would open up stream restoration and buffer planting possibilities along Moores Creek, something that’s been needed for a while, said Gensic.
Charlottesville, which is 10.2 square miles, contains about 35 miles of open waterways, including Moores Creek. Moores Creek flows to the Rivanna River, which flows to the James River, which is a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. But Moores Creek and its tributary, Lodge Creek, aren’t as clean as they could be.
The creeks were listed as impaired (polluted by sediment and bacteria) on Virginia’s Water Quality Assessment Integrated Reports in 2006 and 2008. Then, in 2016 and 2017, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries completed two stream restoration projects to improve the health of Moores Creek.
But as recently as last summer, there was concern about the creek’s health “due to the developed nature of the lands that drain into them,” according to a city press release warning people not to swim in a few local streams, including Moores Creek. Various chemicals, bacteria and other pollutants can contaminate streams and rivers via rainwater runoff and waste management systems.
A new “Urban Stream Health” page on the city’s website monitors the water quality of all local waterways. It’s updated regularly.
If New Roots relocates, in its space, the city could do some buffer planting, planting native vegetation along a creekbed to help slow and absorb flood waters, which in turn helps prevent erosion. That’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for the people who use the park. Erosion often results in steep — and unsafe — creekbeds rife with sharp rocks, tough roots, and shards of dead trees sticking out of the soil and silt.
Gensic hopes that the city can get funding to study the creek’s water quality and clean it up, too. More people should be able to enjoy the creek safely, he said. The new acquisition “gives us room to wiggle,” said Gensic, laughing. “And the stream probably wants to wiggle, too!”
Charlottesville Parks & Rec will continue its conversations with New Roots and will begin asking for neighborhood input on any transformations to Azalea Park — such as the bike track that was discussed in the park’s master plan in 2010 — sometime in the fall.