Parks Reborn-Land&People

At the corner of Hayes and Buchanan streets in Hayes Valley, the sparkling mosaic sculpture and raised garden beds of the Hayes Valley Playground broadcast jolts of color. Enthusiastic children scramble over modern play structures, and a contemporary, electricblue clubhouse welcomes neighbors inside.

But it wasn't always like this. The "wow" factor now packed into the .6-acre playground comes from a $3.9 million transformation completed in June. First opened in 1959, the old playground sat dilapidated behind the gray bulk of a clubhouse that looked like a double-wide trailer. The play structures were built of wood and treated with a weatherproofing since found to be toxic. "It was decrepit," says neighborhood resident Georgia Ryan, who showed up at a community event in May to help apply tile pieces to the new playground's mosaic. "I have two kids," she says, "and I really didn't want them playing in the old playground."

Hayes Valley Playground is the first of three San Francisco parks to open after refurbishment by TPL in collaboration with the city's parks department. The effort began in 2008, after five San Francisco-based donors—Banana Republic, Levi Strauss Foundation, McKesson, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and Wells Fargo Foundation—each contributed $1 million to challenge other donors to help make a difference in their city by rebuilding those parks. To date, TPL has raised more than $15.5 million toward its $16.1 million goal and is leading the planning, design, and construction of the parks.

"In today's difficult budget climate, San Francisco's recreation and park department can't do it alone anymore," says Philip Ginsburg, the department's general manager. "Our partnership with TPL helps families thrive by rebuilding dilapidated parks and playgrounds in neighborhoods that need them most."

Each park will be unique, because each will spring from the native soil of its neighborhood after a participatory design process to uncover residents' needs and desires. "When we do the outreach, we invite the community to think big and imagine beyond the current state of their park," says Philip Vitale, a TPL landscape architect and project manager who has been working on the park renovations.

Reviving a Neighborhood

Hayes Valley was primed for such civic involvement. For 40 years this socioeconomically diverse community, close to city hall and the performing arts district, lived in the shadow of a six-lane elevated freeway. But after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, residents fought to ensure that the damaged freeway wouldn't be rebuilt. An urban farm now flourishes on a former off-ramp, and the once-dark footprint of the elevated highway has been transformed into a beloved greenway surrounded by boutique businesses, tree-lined streets, and Victorian homes, even as the neighborhood— home to several public housing projects—has remained ethnically and economically diverse.

"The soil here was very fertile for partnering," says Richard Johnson. A cofounder of Community Partners United, a Hayes Valley neighborhood group, Johnson was active in the playground effort. "We really believe we can direct our future."

Over seven months TPL representatives held many public meetings and workshops to help the community decide what it wanted in a new playground. What they heard led to a facility that includes play areas for toddlers and school-age children, outdoor fitness equipment for adults, benches and picnic tables, and a small performance stage and plaza for community gatherings. Tucked into a hill at the back of the site, the modern new clubhouse features a computer room, recreation room, kitchen, library, passive cooling, solar heating, a living roof of native plants, and insulation made out of shredded and recycled denim jeans.

A Park for the Tenderloin

A similar community process for Boeddeker Park in the city's Tenderloin district focused on creating a secure, comfortable space within a neighborhood that sometimes feels dangerous to its many low-income residents. Just west of Union Square's upscale hotels and shops, San Francisco's most densely settled neighborhood is populated by the homeless, recent immigrants, poor seniors, and the city's highest number of families living below the federal poverty line. Single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, soup kitchens, and social service agencies line the streets. Named for a popular Roman Catholic priest, 26-year-old Boeddeker Park is the only park within 50 square blocks that is open to adults as well as children.

On a sunny day last August, park volunteer Betty Traynor greeted a park regular, a middle-aged African-American woman reading on a bench. Nearby a group practiced tai chi, and a Chinese woman harvested flower foliage to make an herbal tea for her ailing husband. An elderly woman strolled by, pushing a walker.

"This is why this park is so important," says Traynor, who founded Friends of Boeddeker Park in 2003 and has been bringing music and art to the park since then. "For people like this. People who may live in little SROs, they need a place to be outside, to just relax."

Unfortunately, the space is not welcoming. High, forbidding fences enclose the park and divide it into segregated activity areas. The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces has relegated the park to its "Hall of Shame" for factors that unintentionally turned the place into a battlefield.

"It's a fortress fence," says park neighbor Mike Williams, who has been active in planning the new park. "It's not really welcoming. People in the neighborhood have been complaining about it for years."

"Right now, one of the biggest issues is security," reports former TPL staffer Jacob Gilchrist, who now works for San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department. "When the recreation directors are in the clubhouse, they have to look through five fences and a grade change of ten feet to see who's coming in and out of the park."

The new, more open design for the restored park is based on meetings with neighbors, including representatives of charitable organizations and public service agencies. It features benches, a stage, patios for tai chi and dancing, adult fitness equipment, walking paths, a fullsize basketball court, a play lawn, gardening beds, and a new energy-saving and water-efficient clubhouse.

"We designed the park with the community and for the community, and we believe that the critical mass of people actively using the park's many recreation features will make the park feel safe and welcoming," says Alejandra Chiesa, TPL's project manager for Boeddeker Park. Construction will begin once TPL raises the final $1 million needed to complete the $8.3 million project.

Mike Williams and other park neighbors are looking forward to that. Standing at the park entrance one day last winter, he pointed out the new designs posted near the gate. "Now, this is what a park should look like," he said. "TPL went to all the stakeholders rather than saying, ‘You're going to take what we give you,' as has sometimes been done in the past. I'm glad that has changed. We live in the center of the city, and there's no reason in the world that we shouldn't have a nice park."

New Life for Balboa Park

Although its 25 acres are bounded by multilane highways, a major transit hub, and a police substation, Balboa Park is nevertheless large enough to offer a true sense of respite from the urban clamor. Its neighborhoods—the Excelsior and Mission Terrace—are composed of singlefamily homes and are among the city's most ethnically diverse. More than 70 languages are spoken here, including Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, and English.

More children per capita live here than in any other part of San Francisco. On weekends, families flood Balboa Park, picnicking and chatting, children playing beneath the trees. The park's facilities include an indoor swimming pool, a soccer stadium, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds that draw park users from across the city. But park features have aged, and the playground for school-age kids has only one old swing set and a few basketball backboards on ancient asphalt.

On one foggy weekday afternoon, the sole spot of color in the park seemed to be the tots' playground with its bright, modern equipment. In 2008, the Friends of Balboa Park Playground—100 families strong—won a $500,000 grant from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that helps communities install new play structures. "This was a huge success that bonded the community," says TPL's Philip Vitale, "but the park needs so much more. There's a whole new generation of kids living in this neighborhood, and providing recreation for them is critical."

The overriding impression of Balboa Park is of disjointedness. The various activity areas are cut off from each other by fences, vegetation, roads, and the pool building. "There's no there there," says the parks department's Jacob Gilchrist. "There are a lot of individual uses but no connectivity."

So it's no surprise that a pathway system throughout the park was among the community's priorities as TPL's planning sessions got started. Members of the New Mission Terrace Neighborhood Association promoted perimeter walking paths and improved access, while the Friends of Balboa Park Playground strongly supported building a new skate park and refurbishing the playground for schoolchildren. In addition to these features, the $4.1 million restoration will include upgraded basketball and tennis courts and a new picnic area. Fences will be relocated to create better sightlines into and out of the park, and traffic-calming measures will improve pedestrian safety on nearby streets. Construction is scheduled to begin in November 2011.

Philip Vitale recalls how, in 2008, Balboa Park missed the cut when the city selected parks for improvement with voter-passed bond funds, leaving the community feeling undervalued. "This TPL partnership with the city using philanthropic funding will help to reverse that feeling," Vitale says. "I hope our work shows this community that it's valued. The residents of this neighborhood deserve a park that's attractive and inviting to users of all ages."

This belief underlies TPL's Parks for People work in San Francisco and across the nation. In the Excelsior and the Tenderloin, residents are looking forward to a day like the one last June when Hayes Valley community members gathered with TPL staff, corporate and other donors, government officials, and parks department personnel to cut the ribbon on their rebuilt park. Music from a steel-drum band floated out into the neighborhood, police officers served sizzling barbecue, and a throng of children impatiently waited out speeches for the signal to christen the new play equipment. When the red ribbon was cut, the children charged—the first of untold numbers of San Franciscans who will enjoy these three reborn parks.

San Francisco freelancer Erica Gies wrote about the benefits of outdoor play in the Fall/Winter 2008 issue of Land&People.