Volunteers push for 'universal' playground in Palo Alto

Group has city's support but needs money to make 'Magical Bridge Playground' a reality

When Olenka Villarreal talks about creating a level playing field for Palo Alto's children, she isn't merely reaching for a metaphor.

The energetic city resident is leading a drive to build the city's first "universal" playground -- one that would allow children with disabilities to have the same access to play structures and amenities as everyone else. The vision for the new "Magical Bridge Playground" includes sandless play lots, winding ramps, a cafe, a theater stage and a real bridge spanning Adobe Creek and leading to the rest of Mitchell Park.

The Magical Bridge playground would feature the usual playground amenities such as slides and swings, though the swings would have "bucket seats" to protect the child. The slides, meanwhile, would feature a ramp instead of stairs and ladders.

As the vice president of Friends of Palo Alto Parks, a nonprofit group that supports park upgrades and renovations, Villarreal is no stranger to enhancing the city's recreational facilities. But the Magical Bridge project hits a personal note. Every week, Villarreal drives her 8-year-old daughter, Ava, to Cupertino and pays $120 for Ava's 45-minute session on an indoor swing.

Villarreal compares Ava's therapeutic swinging sessions to a diet -- they need to be performed regularly throughout the week to be fully effective. The money is less of a problem than the difficulty of booking a spot, she said.

For the past two years, Villarreal and a group of about two dozen community volunteers have been spearheading an effort to build the new playground in Mitchell Park. Her group, Friends of the Magical Bridge, has already garnered the support of city staff, various commissions and, most critically, the City Council, which agreed to provide 18,000 square feet of undeveloped space in Mitchell Park for the new playground and to contribute up to $300,000 for construction. The project's cost is estimated around $1.3 million.

At its annual retreat in January, the council identified the Magical Bridge playground as one of the projects the city should pursue to address its newest priority, "community collaboration for youth well-being." In March, the council recognized Friends of the Magical Bridge with a special proclamation, at which time some council members seemed surprised to learn that many residents in their affluent city are forced to drive to San Carlos or Fremont to take their children to the playground.

The council also included the Magical Bridge project in its latest capital budget. The document calls Palo Alto a "magnet for families of special needs children" and estimates there are about 1,500 special-needs children between the ages of 4 and 16 locally. This makes Palo Alto "one of the largest special needs communities on the West Coast."

The council is scheduled to approve on Monday night a letter of intent with the Friends group that would detail the terms of the partnership.

But while city officials agree that there are many good reasons to build the universal playground at Mitchell Park, the Friends group is facing one formidable obstacle: the need to raise about $1 million. The project's chief proponents are residents with special needs, or with children who have special needs. It's a sizable but disparate group, without a traditional organizational structure or a time-tested fundraising mechanism. While a nonprofit group like Friends of Lytton Plaza, which is composed chiefly of downtown developers and well-connected business people, swiftly raised money for the 2009 renovation of the University Avenue plaza, a group like Friends of Magical Bridge faces a steeper climb.

Mayor Sid Espinosa acknowledged the challenge at the March 21 meeting, just after the council heard a presentation from Villarreal about the project.

"It's no easy feat -- fundraising in these economic times," Espinosa said. "But I think that as we work together and get the word out there, and find people who understand the need in this community and are passionate about finding play spaces for kids, we can work together to get this done."

So far, volunteers have raised about $150,000 and hope to see the fundraising accelerate in the coming months. Their goal is to have the new playground in place by the end of 2012.

To attract donations, the Friends group is proposing naming certain playground facilities after major donors, who would also have a say in the playground's design. The group is also selling $250 tiles with buyers' names that would be featured at a prominent location in the park. The Friends are also planning a fundraising event for the end of the year, Villarreal said.

As it seeks to raise money, the group is stressing the fact that the universal playground isn't just for special-needs children but also for adults with disabilities, seniors and all other children. The goal, from the group's perspective, is to educate and to make everyone in Palo Alto feel accepted, Villarreal said.

"We say the playground is the first outdoor classroom the kids are exposed to," Villarreal said. "Our schools are really touting acceptance and inclusion, but once you step out of the classroom you're back into the world where sometimes you feel like you don't belong.

"We know we can do better."

More information is available by calling 650-380-1557 or emailing

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Like this comment
Posted by Charles
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Great project! Kudo's to those working on it. Something very positive during difficult times. Oue donation is on it's way.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 15, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Why does everything have to be put into Mitchell Park? Every time an idea for building in a park comes up it's always Mitchell Park.

These structures should be put in Greer Park or some other park closer to Downtown.

Why is it that Mitchell Park is the only park with a large dog run. Other parks should provide decent sized dog runs.

This was not the vision Pierce Mitchell had for his park. He envisioned large green open spaces, instead people seem to want to build all over it.

Like this comment
Posted by PaloAltoTreeWatch
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jul 15, 2011 at 11:09 pm

How many trees are to be cut down for this project?

Mitchell Park has already had two large groups of trees cut down.

The Stone Pines by the playground next to the tennis courts as well as a huge number of trees at Mitchell Park Library.
It should not need to suffer a third time.

I support putting wheel chair accessible paths and hand rails through the trees and next to the creek. I do not support destroying the beauty of the existing area with alot of plastic and other non-living material.

Like this comment
Posted by Across the street
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 15, 2011 at 11:41 pm

Interesting idea. I'm surprised the article doesn't mention that this space in Mitchel park is basically connected to the Abilities United facility. Web Link

I think is a great project, however, I would also encourage this project to keep as many of the mature trees in that grove as possible.

Like this comment
Posted by Caroline P.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2011 at 7:11 am

I am a 37 year old mom, with 2 kids who can't use ANY of my neighborhood parks and am precisely the Palo Altan who is thrilled to learn about Magical Bridge. Finally!!

Shame on you who posted about your tree concerns, over the concerns for countless residents and so many children out there who need a place like this.

We have plenty of trees, but NO accessible parks here. Thank goodness that is changing and I will gladly send my check today to help.

Like this comment
Posted by Olenka Villarreal
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 16, 2011 at 7:30 am

Charles, "Adobe Resident", and Caroline - thank you for seeing our magical vision and for pledging your support.

To address some of the other comments:

Like most Palo Alto folks, we love our trees, and have worked hard with the City to ensure NONE are removed to accommodate the playground. Kids with special needs don't tolerate hats or sunscreen well, and bright sun can be overstimulating for many so a shady wonderland was always a high priority.

As for " why Mitchell Park," and this location - this area was originally intended to be used for archery! It has been idle and because of its proximity to AchieveKids and Abilities United it is truly a magical spot. I beg to differ with the writer who thinks that Mr. Mitchell would object. He should be delighted that this park will be the very first community park which will welcome everyone, including those with different abilities. We already have 4 dog parks, it's time to include our disabled kids and adults, don't you agree?

Thanks for the posts, and please email me if you want to continue the dialogue - olenka@magical

Like this comment
Posted by nowar
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jul 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I am so disappointed

Like this comment
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2011 at 6:42 am

I believe it was mayor Sid Espinoza who pledged he would personally engage or tap into the wealth of our community members i.e. google boys and perhaps Steve Jobs why has he been so stagnant in this regard.

A phone call a personal visit a commitment from and to these guy's. Is he not the liaison for human relations for HP? What is his track record thus far? Ribbon cutting credits is all I see. That wonderful park should have been built a long time ago.

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 17, 2011 at 7:26 am

You are right, PAPD-Critic! Mayor Sid could help this great effort with a call or two...Mayor Sid?

Like this comment
Posted by person
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm

A few years back a tree branch fell on a child and caused serious injury. I support the new play area.

Like this comment
Posted by localmom
a resident of another community
on Jul 17, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Cuesta park in MV has many of these features. It was re-built about 6 or 7 years ago and is VERY handicap accessible. That being said, it is extremely rare that I have seen kids with disabilities actually using the park, but it is very popular with everyone! So I wanted to throw that out there if your child has special needs, try Cuesta in the meantime...

Like this comment
Posted by Linda Allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 18, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I am proud of you for fighting for this!!

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Jul 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Cynthia, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on July 15, 2011 at 1:31 p.m.:

Wow! I am shocked that we have no such playground here.

We just moved from Ohio where we have inclusive parks and they are wonderful. I am in great support this gets built.

Kudos to this group,


Posted by Steve R., a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on July 15, 2011 at 3:56 p.m.:

Where are the start-up heroes in Palo Alto?

I'm not one of them but if I were, I would surely help this cause. Thanks Magical Bridge friends.

Like this comment
Posted by work
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I would love to volunteer if they can sign me on with their signature project.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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