By Ken Williams | Editor
The North Park Mini-Park, which has languished in legal limbo for many years, is back on the drawing board, and residents who have reviewed the concept are giving the design double thumbs-up.
The mini-park will replace an unused parking lot, which is directly behind the historic Observatory North Park theater and another building housing the New Life Cleaners and Stern’s Gym. The half-acre, city-owned site is bounded by 29th Street on the east, North Park Way on the south and Granada Avenue on the west.
Barren asphalt will be replaced by concrete and pavers, an outdoor stage, a children’s play area and pergolas. Sporting an open feeling, the park will be used for concerts, outdoor movie nights, community events, food truck gatherings, the Thursday farmers market and other activities.
A separate landscaping project will add dozens of trees of varying colors and species, not only in the park, but also along three surrounding streets.
Interested neighbors and residents raved about the concept during an informational meeting presented by KTU+A on July 19 at the North Park Adult Center. The well-known planning and landscape architecture firm in Hillcrest was recently hired as the consultant on the project and will be working with the city’s Park and Recreation Department and the North Park Recreation Council.
The mini-park is expected to open in early 2020, said Chris Langdon, the project’s team leader at KTU+A.
“This will become the town square of North Park,” Langdon predicted.
The roots of the project began in the last decade, when the city was empowering redevelopment agencies to encourage urban renewal. At the time, North Park had not yet begun its renaissance into one of San Diego’s hippest neighborhoods, and city officials, business leaders and residents were looking for ways to breathe new life into the community.
The North Park Mini-Park was proposed for the North Park Redevelopment Project Area, and in 2009 the city began setting aside money to fund the park and landscaping projects.
On June 4, 2011, the city sponsored a five-hour visioning and design workshop to get community input on the project.
On July 11, 2012, the city’s Park and Recreation board approved the general development plan for the park and the concept design by MIG. You can read that report online at bit.ly/2uN4n9I.
But in late December 2012, the state invalidated the entirety of California cities’ urban renewal programs, putting billions of dollars of projects on hold as revenue streams dried up. And the mini-park became one of hundreds of projects across the state that got caught up in legal purgatory.
Meanwhile, the concept design by MIG began winning prestigious awards, including the Award of Merit for Neighborhood Planning at both the 2013 APA California Awards and the 2013 APA San Diego Section Awards.
The overwhelming consensus of residents at the July 19 meeting is that the mini-park will be a smash hit. Most of them applauded the proposed uses and loved the concept, but a few were concerned about noise, trash and keeping the park from being overrun by the homeless.
Two people were dismayed that local artists would not be hired to design several sculpture-like wayfinding pylons, which will be 20-feet tall and guide visitors from University Avenue to the mini-park. KTU+A said the wayfinding pylons are not art pieces, and that the project’s $1.7 million construction budget doesn’t include money set aside for artwork. The overall budget, including design and other elements, totals $2.4 million, Landon said.
KTU+A said designers needed to decide what the wayfinding pylons should accomplish: Be descriptive? Be sculptural? Two of the concepts showed a pylon base that replicates the one for the iconic North Park sign near the corner of University Avenue and 30th Street — in the heart of “downtown” North Park.
Landon suggested that the back wall of the laundry and gym building would be perfect for a public mural that could tie into the theme of the mini-park.
To discourage homeless encampments, designers are making the mini-park more active and less passive. The openness of the space, which will allow police and security officers to see the entirety of the half-acre, should eliminate any measure of privacy, Landon said. “There will be no hiding places,” he added.
Later, addressing some security questions, considering the recent melee inside the Observatory North Park that spilled out into the nearby streets, Landon said “we don’t want people to be confined in the park,” in a rare case of street fighting.
Furthermore, KTU+A proposes to use portable furnishings — tables, chairs and modular furniture — for special events. That creates the unresolved issue of who will be responsible for the set-up and storage of those items after every event. Landon suggested a public/private collaboration, perhaps with North Park Main Street, which represents the nearby business community. The city’s Park and Recreation Department would be responsible for maintaining the park, he said.
The presentation by KTU+A varied little from the 2012 concept that won awards. The Hillcrest firm did tweak some things, moving the 12-foot-high entertainment stage slightly forward and to the east, so that it did not wrap around the southwest corner of the theater’s back wall.
A secondary stage, originally planned in the southwest corner of the park, will likely become a daily activity space. Landon envisioned a rope-climbing structure for children as well as outdoor “music instruments.” A musician who lives nearby urged designers to make sure the “music instruments” not exceed the ambient noise level that is permitted in the area, where the business district begins transitioning into residential neighborhood.
The firm also said the city will require a 12-foot-wide access to the theater along the back wall of the laundry and gym building. Currently, a row of trash bins is located against that back wall. The owner of the Chinese laundry told residents that people use that area as a restroom, creating a stinky health hazard that he has to deal with on a daily basis.
Landon said they will camouflage the trash bins behind fencing as well as add a storage bin for the park’s portable furnishings. And designers will create a subtle paving to separate the right-of-way from the park, he said.
One of the more interesting elements of the park will be the use of large letters to spell out “North Park” — which will also create permanent seating on the back side of the letters. The current concept incorporates two of the pergolas into that design element, providing some shade. Other pergolas would be spread across the park.
Dionné Carlson, a member of the North Park Planning Committee, urged the designers to use a neutral color palette so that it will be sustainable and everlasting. “Ageless, not the ’80s,” she quipped.
René Vidales, chair of the planning committee, has been working on the mini-park plan for years. Like most residents at the meeting, he said he is thrilled to see the plans moving forward.
KTU+A officials said they expect to hold another informational meeting when final plans are ready for public review. Stay tuned.