When Palo Alto opened its first Magical Bridge playground in Mitchell Park four years ago, it was widely acclaimed for featuring slides, swings and other play equipment that accommodate children with disabilities.
Today, the playground isn't just a popular attraction; it's also a blueprint for how other playgrounds are designed, both within and beyond the city's borders. Santa Clara County recently approved $10 million in grants for up to five "inclusive" playgrounds throughout the county, including at El Carmelo Elementary School in Palo Alto. And city staff are looking at Magical Bridge for inspiration as they're moving ahead with renovations to existing parks.
In recent months, Palo Alto's architects and engineers have been finalizing their designs for redeveloping the area of Rinconada Park near the Junior Museum and Zoo, which itself is now in the midst of a $20-million expansion. If things go as planned, both the new zoo and the renovated playground will reopen around spring 2020, said Peter Jensen, landscape architect at the Public Works Department.
The Rinconada plan, which the city's Parks and Recreation Commission enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed on May 28, calls for replacing two existing playgrounds — one for toddlers and one for older children — with the inclusive playground. While it won't be as grand as the Magical Bridge, which was built through intense public fundraising, it would follow a similar philosophy and cater to children with disabilities, with rubber surfacing and all-new playground equipment.
The proposed play area is the centerpiece of a broader, multi-phased plan for the popular 19-acre park, which the City Council adopted in 2017 to govern the space's transformation over the next 25 years. The first phase of the playground redevelopment calls for renovating existing picnic areas, expanding the main turf area, adding new pathways, installing adult fitness equipment and building a "pollinator garden" in the rear area of the new zoo.
The plan also calls for installing a bathroom near the playground, though that component may be deferred to a later phase because of budget constraints, Jensen said.
Because of community input on the renovation plan in February, Jensen said several changes have been incorporated: the picnic area will now be expanded, with the goals of providing more space for family activities; the adult fitness equipment will now be located outside the play area; and a decomposed-granite pathway has been scrapped due to expense.
Much like Magical Bridge, Rinconada's inclusive playground will include a "swing zone" and a "spin zone," as well as an assortment of ramps, monkey bars and other playground essentials. Bucket swings, which offer protection to children with disabilities, and new slides will be added, Jensen said.
The proposed renovation earned rave reviews from the Parks and Recreation Commission, even as members acknowledged that the Rinconada sequel will not rival the Mitchell Park original.
Vice Chair Jeff Greenfield noted that even with the proposed improvements, there will only be one Magical Bridge playground in the Palo Alto parks system. That, however, doesn't mean that the city can't do more to make future playgrounds more inclusive.
"There's lots of requests throughout the community to build another Magical Bridge playground," Greenfield said. "I think we want to emphasize that what we're focusing on is inclusive playgrounds."
The biggest concern, as always, is budget. Like every other infrastructure project that the city has pursued this year, costs have gone up because of the hot construction market. Jensen said that if the Rinconada Park project had been implemented four years ago, the bids would likely be more than 25% lower.
That said, city officials are eager to break ground on the project and to complete it by next spring. Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who serves as council liaison to the Parks and Recreation Commission, said she was excited about opening another inclusive playground.
"The school district is keeping track and they are now implementing their second Magical Bridge playground," Cormack said, alluding to the El Carmelo playground and the one that was approved last year for Addison Elementary School. "I hope this counts as ours, so we'll still be tied."