Children's Park, between First Avenue and Front Street at Harbor Drive, doesn't look as charming as it once did. Several of the whimsical rolling mounds have been removed, interior trees ripped out and the tops of the Italian Cyprus trees surrounding the park's perimeter lopped off.
On several recent trips to Children's Park—which shouldn't be confused with the bustling Children's Museum Park nearby— the parcel was nearly vacant, save for a few dog walkers and a handful of homeless folks. An older lady with a shopping cart, several umbrellas and a blaring radio has become a permanent fixture.
“She's there pretty much every day with her radio,” said a resident of a condo across the street. “It's funny; last weekend it was full of people because of Comic-Con, which was nice to see because usually it's empty. I do go over there sometimes, but it's not the nicest place to go.”
The community's needs have drastically changed since many of the Downtown parks were built, said Derek Danziger, spokesperson for Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), San Diego's Downtown redevelopment arm, citing census numbers showing the Downtown population more than doubling in the last decade.
“The park was designed at a time when there weren't as many kids Downtown and times were different,” Danziger said. “So, we want to make sure that as Downtown grows and adapts, so do the parks.”
In recent years, Children's Park has been likened to the dense forest in Hansel and Gretel. The mounds make it difficult to see kids even if they're just a few feet away, and the urban forest eventually got so thick that it made visibility even more challenging. Families stopped visiting, and the homeless moved in.
“It was never a very comfortable place for people to be,” said Mike Stepner, former San Diego city architect and current faculty coordinator at NewSchool of Architecture and Design. “I think the design, when it was first proposed, it was an intriguing thing…. The execution, though, it eventually became a very dark and foreboding place.”
Children's Park was built in early 1996, right before the Republican National Convention was held in San Diego. At the time, the city thought of the park as the “parlor room” or entryway to San Diego's quickly changing Downtown.
CCDC tasked renowned landscape architect Peter Walker with implementing a design for Children's Park that would wow the politicians at the convention, as well as future visitors and conventioneers.
“I'm not sure why they called it Children's Park because it wasn't designed to be a children's park—there's no playground,” Walker said. “It was really designed to be a park opposite the convention center and to be an entrance to the city and a foreground to all the redevelopment going on behind it.”
The national and local awards started rolling in. The park was heralded as a vital part of Downtown's early redevelopment, and the iconic mounds made the design stand out as bold, artistic and modern.
“It was a small design,” Walker said, “but it captured people's imagination and it became relatively famous. It was in books and things.”
Yet as the trees grew, so did complaints. In 2008, CCDC responded by thinning the trees and leveling several mounds. The park's redesign became a priority.
“There was a lot of thought that went into the original design,” said Mark Caro, CCDC's landscape architect and project manager for Children's Park. “But Peter was very acknowledging that landscapes evolve…. We had to come up with a design program that would reactivate the space.”
“It was always a beautiful park,” Schmidt says. “Based on the intent of the original design concept, I personally have no arguments against it and the way it was conceptualized and implemented. Look, it's really durable—it's really held up.”
Schmidt's firm is a subcontractor for Fusco Engineering, which won the Children's Park job through a competitive process. When Schmidt was brought on, he talked to Walker. Schmidt says he felt nervous about “tinkering with the master's design.”
Public comments were also a big driver in Schmidt's design. He eventually came up with a plan for the $3.2-million budget that includes amenities like a large play area for kids, a vendor building that will house restrooms and a café or restaurant, a few interactive water features including a rain curtain that responds to the sound of the trolley cutting through the south end of the park and small jets that shoot water beads, which fly through the air and outline a shape similar to the mounds.
“We're trying to pay homage to Peter Walker's design wherever we can,” Schmidt says.
For budget reasons, the project has been split into two phases, the second including a redesign of the fountain and pond that adds interactive functions. According to public testimony, the community wants a water feature, especially since the nearby Gaslamp Square's “Dancing Waters” fountain is inactive. The community also likes the planned pathways cutting through the park.
“We're trying to draw people in,” Schmidt says. “When we observed pedestrian movement through the park, we noticed there are a lot of people who wanted to cut across the park diagonally. We integrated this natural movement through the site into our design.”
The plan does have critics. At a public hearing last year, a community member voiced concerns.
“I think it's too structured,” she said. “I think you could save a lot of money if you just leave it alone and let the kids play on their own. I don't particularly think kids need slides and rings of water to play.”
Phase 1 of the plan was approved by the City Council in May, and construction is slated to begin in the fall of 2012. With redevelopment funds targeted by Gov. Jerry Brown, though, it's hard to estimate when CCDC will have enough money for Phase 2.
On Monday, the City Council voted to comply with a state law recently signed by Brown that allows redevelopment agencies to continue operations by making payments to the state. CCDC estimates a $47 million payout this year and $11 million in following years. Danziger said CCDC has compiled a list of projects that will need to be deferred for several years due to the budget cuts, but Children's Park isn't on it.
“Our hope is that Children's Park will move forward,” he said.
“And,” Caro added, “our hopes are that the park is reactivated and all the thousands of residents who've made a choice to move Downtown and be a part of urban living have an outdoor space to enjoy.”