McLean’s Clemyjontri Park is already an indispensable asset to many families for its unique, accessible playground and other kid-friendly facilities, but the park could become a destination for art lovers as well if plans for its next phase come to fruition.
The McLean Project for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the visual arts, and the Fairfax County Park Authority unveiled their preliminary pitch for a new arts center at Clemyjontri Park at a public open house in the McLean Community Center on Feb. 24.
While the Clemyjontri Project is in its early stages with the design, financing, and other elements still up in the air, county and MPA leaders offered a vision of the arts center as a hub not just for artists, but also for the community at large, with space for exhibitions, classes, and events.
“The hope is that we’re going to be able to do this in such a professional manner, that the highest quality artists, working artists in the region would want to exhibit their work with us and would be delighted to teach with us,” McLean Project for the Arts executive director Lori Carbonneau said. “We would offer classes for all ages and all skill levels, whether you’re a young beginner or if you’re a very accomplished artist.”
Under MPA’s proposal to Fairfax County, the Lebowitz house that currently sits just south of the existing playground would be renovated and expanded to include one wing with art galleries and another with classrooms.
Carbonneau says MPA is envisioning three galleries for the arts center: a 3,000 square-foot space comparable to the organization’s Emerson Gallery at the McLean Community Center, a 1,500 square-foot space intended to exhibit individual artists’ work, and a smaller black box studio for light and film installations.
The nonprofit also hopes to introduce public art along some walkways in the park.
Anticipated to occupy approximately 18,000 square feet total based on initial schematic designs, the proposed arts center is part of a broader plan to develop the final five acres of the 18-acre park property in accordance with a master plan that has been in place since 2002.
With roots as agrarian farmland dating back to the 1700s, Clemyjontri Park came into the Fairfax County Park Authority’s possession in March 2000 as a donation from Adele Lebowitz, who resided in the house that was originally built on the land around 1912.
Lebowitz had lived on the estate since 1947 and raised four children there with her late husband, Mortimer Lebowitz, the founder of a now-defunct department store chain in the Washington, D.C., area who was also known as a civic leader that championed racial justice, according to a 2003 Washington Post article on Clemyjontri Park’s formation.
Lebowitz opted to give the multimillion-dollar property to Fairfax County instead of selling it to developers on the conditions that she can remain in the house until her death and that the land be turned into a park with a playground accessible to children with physical disabilities.
Lebowitz also stipulated that the park be named Clemyjontri, a mash-up of the names of her four children Carolyn, Emily, John, and Petrina.
Fairfax County Park Authority staff and a neighborhood and community task force developed a general management and conceptual development plan for Clemyjontri Park that was approved by the authority’s board on Jan. 16, 2002.
The plan broke the park’s development into three phases, starting with the introduction of a one-acre, barrier-free playground centered on a carousel accessible to people with disabilities and an 81-car parking lot that opened to the public in October 2006.
The plan’s recently completed second phase involved the addition of a second parking lot with 65 spaces and an expansion of the park’s trail network, along with some fencing and stormwater management enhancements.
Since the park opened, the playground and carousel have been joined by a trackless train with a ramp, a Liberty Swing that wheelchair users can ride without having to be transferred from their chair, and a picnic celebration pavilion with wheelchair-accessible tables and water fountains.
The Friends of Clemyjontri raised money to purchase and install the Liberty Swing in 2010 and donated a drum circle of musical instruments in 2011.
The nonprofit also donated funds to the Fairfax County Park Foundation for the trackless train, which opened in July 2018, and the pavilion, which had support from the McLean Community Foundation, Rotary Club of McLean, and other donors.
The third phase of the Clemyjontri master plan calls for the Lebowitz house and its surrounding gardens to become a space for events and other potential community uses, though it could not commence until after Adele Lebowitz’s death in 2014.
The McLean Project for the Arts has been searching for a second location with space for more equipment-heavy classes, like ceramics or printing, to complement the McLean Community Center, which has the Emerson Gallery for exhibitions and the DuVal Studio for painting and drawing classes, according to Carbonneau.
The nonprofit first brought its proposal for a visual arts center at Clemyjontri Park to the Fairfax County Park Authority in November 2017.
Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust says he is glad MPA stepped forward to redevelop the Lebowitz house, though to his knowledge, the county has not received any other offers.
Founded in 1962 by a group of female artists as a professional space, the McLean Project for the Arts provides contemporary art exhibitions, educational classes, and ArtReach, an outreach program that extends gallery tours and activities to students, seniors, and people with disabilities.
The nonprofit’s annual MPAartfest, a free, outdoor celebration of the visual arts, drew nearly 8,000 people in 2019 and will be held at McLean Central Park for the 14th time on Oct. 4.
“It’s contributing to the quality of life in McLean beyond what a normal arts studio would do,” Foust said of MPA. “…Now, with this proposal, if that happens, they’re going to be an integral part of the McLean community.”
While the Feb. 24 open house marked the public’s official introduction to the project, MPA has already met with representatives from neighborhoods around Clemyjontri Park and has started to engage with civic organizations, including the McLean Citizens Association.
The organization has developed initial schematic designs for the new arts center with the help of two architects on its board and plans to issue a request for proposals in early March for a firm that will oversee the facility’s design and construction.
At the same time, MPA is currently working with a nonprofit consulting group called Compass on a program analysis to determine what kinds of classes should be offered at the arts center. The analysis is funded with a grant and is expected to finish in June.
The McLean Project for the Arts anticipates the project will be funded through private donations, though it will conduct a fundraising feasibility study before launching a capital campaign.
“Critical will be making sure that we work with the community to address any concerns they have,” Foust said. “In general, I think, in the beginning at least, they’re very supportive, but that assumes that it’ll be done appropriately to protect the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
While Carbonneau says MPA has received “robustly positive” feedback from the community so far, there are already some logistical challenges at Clemyjontri Park, especially with parking.
The nonprofit says it will design the arts center’s programming with its parking limitations in mind, keeping its most heavily attended programs – the MPA Artfest and MPA ArtReach – at their current locations and providing shuttle service to the park from off-site parking for special events, such as its annual spring benefit.
The exhibition openings that MPA typically holds seven or eight times a year attract around 75 to 100 attendees but generally take place from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., after the park’s daytime crowds would be gone and the evening rush hour.
MPA has about 10 people on its daily staff with classes usually drawing six to 10 attendees, according to the nonprofit.
MPA hopes to know whether it should proceed with the arts center by the end of the year, but for now, the nonprofit and Fairfax County want to gauge the public’s opinion of the concept.
Before the project moves forward, the county park authority board has to approve a revision to its parks and recreation master plan. MPA’s proposal will also have to undergo the 2232 review process used to evaluate the compatibility of proposed public facilities with the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan and obtain zoning approvals, which requires getting a recommendation from the county’s planning commission and a final decision from the board of supervisors.
Fairfax County Park Authority park planning supervisor Ryan Stewart says all of those processes generally take about 18 months, making MPA’s aspiration to begin operations at Clemyjontri by the end of 2022 in time for its 60th anniversary rather optimistic.
“I think the proposal that they’re putting forward is really developing a sense of place at the park and providing for some additional community uses that would not otherwise be available,” Stewart said. “…It all depends on how much public input we get and kind of the direction the community leads us in.”