A public-serving facility always seems to be a great idea until that facility is planned in front of or near one’s home. That “not in my back yard” – or NIMBY – mindset has prevented freeways from being built and affected how country officials planned the route of the new Expo Line into Santa Monica.
At the first council meeting of 2012 on Tuesday, several local residents appeared at City Hall to express their reservations about a public park catering to children of all capacities.
What started as an ambitious plan to bring the first-ever universally accessible playground to Santa Monica turned into a divisive debate about safety, homeless activity, and other potential negative elements taking over a small portion of Santa Monica Beach.
The playground’s design calls for a 20,000-square-foot facility that is meant to give able-bodied and disabled youths the same access to a playground hailed from the Sea Colony complex. If realized, the universally accessible playground would be in an area on Barnard Way in between Sea Colony and Santa Monica Beach.
Based upon the rendered designs of the planned playground, residents were most concerned about noise and potential homeless or gang activity in the area.
Other concerns included proper (and free) parking, and whether children would be able to cross the adjacent bike path in order to access the nearby restrooms without the threat of oncoming bicycle traffic.
Some of the concerns stemmed from the playground’s design, which, according to the staff report, called for a “Ship Concept.” With a faux naval vessel, complete with white sails and hulls, built into the sand, some residents worried that the homeless might take residence – and perhaps fornicate – in the large prop.
“Many of us strongly object to the proposed location. Our reasons are safety, health, sanitation, and noise. I’m sure the playground expansion is well-intentioned, but the location is horrible,” resident Steve Unger said. “It’s a big mistake. It will not serve or benefit the Santa Monica community. If there were ever a foreseeable hazard, this is it.”
Unger also pointed out that there were homeless people, gang members, and “drug pushers” already populating the area where the planned playground would be constructed.
“The proposed location may be universally accessible, but it is definitely universally unsafe,” Unger added.
One Sea Colony resident expressed support of the playground, adding he suspects many others at the residential community would do the same.
“This is a public beach. Disabled children and their families have as much right and access to that beach as anyone else,” Shawn Casey O’Brien told council members. “You are living in a tourist destination that is second only to Disneyland. If you don’t like crowds, then you shouldn’t be living at the beach in Santa Monica.”
The seesaw public debate essentially fell in line with the comments expressed by Unger and O’Brien. On the one end, the playground was an open invitation to urban ills and would possibly disturb the lifestyles of the Sea Colony residents. On the other end, the playground served as a symbolic and practical gesture in ensuring children with special needs would be allowed to enjoy Santa Monica Beach no different from anyone else.
Council members deliberated for more than one hour looking at points raised before ultimately agreeing unanimously to move forward with the playground’s plans while also considering alternatives for child safety.
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis thought the playground’s planned location on Barnard Way was the best option available. She also pointed out that the safety concern of having to cross the bike path to get to the restroom was an issue for beachgoers and playground visitors alike.
“I think it’s fabulous to have a universally accessible playground. I think this is a lovely spot for it because it is on the beach,” Davis said. “It will let people of all abilities enjoy our beaches. That’s not to say there may not be problems. I understand the concerns of the residents, but I think most of the concerns that I heard the residents express … were existing concerns.”
Mayor Richard Bloom pointed out there was still work to do before the final designs were formally approved and that many of the concerns residents raised in council chambers might be addressed by the time the playground becomes a reality.
“We did not address every issue that residents would have liked us to address, but I do think we got to most of them,” Bloom said. “Staff is convinced that in the coming process they will be able to address some of the other concerns. The finished product is, I believe, going to be something that will not cause the kinds of problems that are a concern here tonight.”
Putting the playground into perspective, the usually progressive Bloom said he believed Santa Monica was overdue to have a universally accessible playground.
“Someone observed we are behind the curve on accessible parks. Well, we certainly are,” Bloom said. “But we’re not alone. The entire country is behind on accessible parks. I am hoping that this will demonstrate leadership in Santa Monica. There are a few (cities) out there (with universally accessible parks), but there needs to be many, many, many more.”
Looking ahead, the complete design development plans are expected to be completed by March, with the Coastal Commission reviewing plans as early as next month. Construction documents are expected to be complete by May, with council members potentially deciding whether to award a construction contract in July.
Construction would start in August if all goes as scheduled.
All seven council members were present at the Jan. 10 council meeting.