Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 18, 2014

Magical Bridge playground surges toward reality

Architectural Review Board approves design for Palo Alto's first 'inclusive' playground

by Gennady Sheyner

With funds fully secured and its final design winning approval Thursday, Palo Alto's dream of creating an "inclusive" playground for children with and without disabilities is now on a firm path toward reality.

Spearheaded by local volunteers, including parents of children with disabilities, the Magical Bridge playground scored a victory this week when Santa Clara County provided $150,000 for the project, augmenting privately raised funds. Thursday, the $3.2-million project received a unanimous vote of approval from the city's Architectural Review Board, with members using words like "very exciting," "attractive" and "really wonderful" to describe the proposed playground, which would be located at Mitchell Park.

"It has been just a very magical ride," said Olenka Villareal, who launched the fundraising campaign in 2008 with the purpose of giving her daughter, Ava, and other children with disabilities a playground that can accommodate their needs.

None of Palo Alto's 34 playgrounds are fully compliant with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public places to include wheelchair access, Villareal said in her comments to the Architectural Review Board.

"We decided that when we're building the Magical Bridge playground, let's take it well above and beyond the standards," she told the board.

The board's approval and the latest grant make it increasingly likely that construction could begin as early as June. Once built, the playground would include seven zones, each focusing on a specific type of play. These include a spinning zone, with five separate play structures (including a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round); a swing zone with four different swing sets (including a set with six harness chairs); a sliding-and-climbing zone with four slides and a walkway bridge that reduces the need for ramps; and a "tot-a-lot" zone designed for children aged 2 to 5 and featuring a double slide, a climbing apparatus and a spinning bowl.

There also will be a music zone with equipment such as stacked bells, a "Metallophone" (a series of poles that produce different tones), drums and chimes; a "natural play zone" with a climbing boulder, a proposed playhouse and picnic area. There also will be an "open play zone," a large turf area that can accommodate group play and offer visitors a place to get away from the main playground.

The design consultant for the new playground is the firm Royston Hanamoto Alley and Abey, the same group that designed Mitchell Park.

Though the city contributed $300,000 for the proposed playground, most of the funding was raised by volunteers, with donors including the Peery Foundation, the Enlight Foundation, former Palo Alto Mayor Leland Levy and the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund. Villareal said the latest contribution from the county leaves the project about $200,000 shy of its goal.

In announcing the $150,000 grant, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he was "so pleased that our County could provide even a modest contribution toward this worthy project." Palo Alto City Manager James Keene welcomed the news and praised the county for its grant.

"There's a lot to love about this project," Keene said in a statement. "I'm pleased that the County saw the value of partnering with the City to provide a unique facility of regional value."

The architecture board added its own voice of support for the project on Thursday. Board member Randy Popp called it "very exciting."

"This is a very easy project for me to look at," Popp said.

The board's approval included a few cavils, including a request that the playhouse be made more iconic. Architectural Review Board Chairman Lee Lippert likened the playhouse to the castle at Disneyland — a structure that is so distinct that people instantly identify it with the theme park.

"There's an opportunity that's lost and it may not cost more. It's just how you use those materials and how it's put together," Lippert said. "I want it to be something that the kids go and, like, their minds explode almost."

Board member Robert Gooyer agreed.

"If you're going to do something with that, go nuts with it," Gooyer told the project architects.

Though they asked the architects to return May 1 with a few revisions, board members were unanimous in approving the overall design for the playground. Alexander Lew said the new playground will be attractive to everybody and Clare Malone Prichard said she is happy to support it.

"I think it will be really wonderful for the kids," Malone Prichard said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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