Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Dolores enters rehab, gets makeover


Sunbathers enjoy the sun at the Gay Beach in the southwest corner of Dolores Park; the reconstruction of the children's playground is in the background. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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Mission Dolores Park, the 14-acre urban oasis "unanimously voted the greatest place on earth" according to its Facebook fan page, is in the midst of a major renovation that has its many devotees on edge with worry, curiosity, and enthusiasm.

This month, those sitting on the park's south hill could hardly fail to notice the huge, gaping hole in the park's southern lawn where the playground used to be.

Tracy Isabella Gonzales, 23, secretary for the Queer Resource Center at City College of San Francisco, was optimistic.

"I think it's for the best, Dolores could totally use a makeover," Gonzales, who identifies as straight, told the Bay Area Reporter. "I look forward to seeing more children and families and less drug dealers once the changes are complete."

Others are more ambivalent.

"The construction is an eyesore, no doubt," said San Francisco resident Catherine Cole, 30, a lesbian. "I understand it likely will be beneficial in the end, but it definitely adds an odd obstruction to Gay Beach."

That obstruction will become a new and improved playground, named after San Francisco philanthropist Helen Diller, with a grand opening projected for spring or summer 2012.

The Helen Diller Playground will boast a 10-foot-high "play mound" with rubberized surface, new swing set, a shipwrecked boat, sound garden, sand area, boulders and nets for climbing, and a 45-foot "super slide."

It is the spectacular opening salvo of the project known as Dolores Park Renovation (or Improvement, or Rehabilitation), which falls under the auspices of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

For native San Franciscan Nancy Gonzalez Madynski, chair of the volunteer organization Friends of Dolores Park Playground, breaking ground is the culmination of a lengthy and arduous process.

"We've been working on this since 2004-05, when we started thinking and forming our group," Madynski, 39, told the B.A.R. But it really gained momentum a couple years ago when the park bond passed. "We've had social events along the way, we have a 2,000-member email list. We've had an incredible amount of input from the community."

Project Manager Jake Gilchrist of Rec and Park provided a status report from July estimating the total renovation budget – excluding the playground – at $11.7 million. All of it comes from the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, passed by voters in November 2008.

The playground has a separate budget of $3.5 million, covered by bond and general fund money plus a $1.5 million grant from the Mercer Foundation.

The improvement project isn't expected to wrap until spring of 2014, if it stays on schedule.

Rec and Park approved a full-scale renovation design in June 2009. A police crackdown on drinking and other licentious behavior began around the same time, reportedly in response to complaints from neighbors who were not inured to the park's libertine ethos.

"It's been tradition to look the other way at drinking and smoking in the park," said Robert Brust, co-founder of Dolores Park Works, created in 2009 to advocate for the park.

In 2010 rumors exploded that the park would be completely closed to the public throughout the renovation – as long as a year and a half. By then Dolores had (again) won a strong following, which went ballistic on her behalf. Then-supervisor Bevan Dufty issued a calming statement, the rumors evaporated, and everyone settled back onto the lawn.

It appears the park will only be partially closed in the areas immediately affected, as it is now with the playground pit.

Madynski said that FDPP's intention is "to preserve the park and its play value for all ages," meaning anyone under 18 years of age can use the playground, in contrast to the general trend which designs playgrounds only for the youngest children, 0 to 4 years old.

"I don't know anyone who doesn't like to get on a swing, even at our age," Madynski said. "We have a strong design team [Royston Hanamoto Alley and Abey] with a landscape architect hired privately [Koch Landscape Architecture]. Everyone's very excited about it."

Except those who are not.

Museum or playground?

"The playground design treats the park as if it had no historical value at all," said Lucia Bogatay, co-president of the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association, whose ultimate goal is to have the Mission registered officially as a historic district. "It removes the historic path and digs into the grassy slope above it for the slide. RHAA started on it early, without evaluating its resources properly."

Bogatay is a Harvard-trained architect with a history of civic engagement on the side of preservation and commemoration. She contributed to the design of the Castro's Harvey Milk Plaza, fought against museums in the Presidio, and was a member of the jury that chose the winning design for the LGBT Community Center in 1997 when it was still in the conceptual stages.

Her objection to the playground was seconded by Harry Clark, 58, a gay Castro resident and member of the renovation project's steering committee.

"It seems the playground was designed in a vacuum, disrupting the park's most defining characteristic, which is the open green lawn," Clark vented to the B.A.R. "They're building this landscape of boulders, when there's never been a single rock in the park. Who thought that would be appropriate? The original footprint has doubled in size. I thought this was a renovation of a playground, not a revision of the master plan of the park."

Bogatay and Clark are among the hard-line preservationists who feel the park's historic value has not been adequately represented at the monthly public workshops that began in June.

But Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has also been in the thick of the fray, contradicted their views.

"Lucia and others have spoken to the park's historical value at the meetings," Wiener said in an interview with the B.A.R . "Helen Diller came out of an extensive community process regarding the design. The old playground was outdated, it wasn't up to modern safety standards, and it had horrible irrigation and drainage problems."

Preservationists aren't the only ones complaining. If Dolores Park is "San Francisco's living room," as a user named Gay Chris termed it in 2009, then the city is a dysfunctional family, and right now everyone is fighting over the living room.

The big picture

Besides the new playground, the renovation design at present consists of the following: a new, 12-foot-wide, central and universally accessible road ("The ADA Road," since it responds to federal regulations under the Americans With Disabilities Act); a building and loading zone for the maintenance crew, at least two new restrooms at opposite ends of the park, a brand-new bike polo court, an updated storm water collection system, new picnic areas and off-leash dog zones, plus a revamp of the existing sports areas and the pedestrian bridge that connects the park with Church Street.

The fate of the Clubhouse building, where maintenance and the restrooms now dwell, is not yet decided. Re-use advocates want it converted into a Dolores Park history museum, while others would tear it down and replace it with a cafe or restaurant.

"The Clubhouse is not a building of great historic value," argued Lindsay Kefauver of Dolores Park Dogs, a canine advocacy group. "There used to be a little gothic chapel there before it. The plumbing is totally shot, it's from the 1930s. The whole building is filled with asbestos."

The ADA Road will mean destruction of the historic promenade leading in from the park's central eastern gate, a fact lamented by Bogatay and Clark, but not Kefauver. She described the promenade as "a wasted area" that not many people use.

"Most people don't even know that it's the main entrance to the park," Kefauver added.

The access road, however, is one of the more contentious elements of the entire renovation package.

Kefauver, also a member of the steering committee, said there was "no choice" in the matter of the road, since Rec and Park stipulated it from the start.

Clark said ADA only requires a road "four to six feet wide," and blamed the maintenance department for the new road's 12-foot width, which he and others feel will impinge heavily on the free-flowing unity of the lawn.

"Maintenance has this rule, or rather opinion, that the road must be wide enough for an eight-foot truck and a four-foot wheelchair to use it at the same time," Clark explained. "There's no reason they have to have trucks in the middle of the park. What about smaller vehicles that aren't eight feet wide? What about limiting trucks to certain hours? Maintenance needs to get more creative."

One thing everyone appears to agree on is the need for new and more accessible restrooms.

Wiener thought they had reached "a fairly broad consensus" for three new restrooms to be installed on Gay Beach, the tennis courts, and Hipster Hill.

But Rec and Park officials said the agreement was for two restrooms, one in the tennis courts and one by the new playground.

Next week: A look at some of the gay history of Dolores Park.

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