It’s far more than a face-lift that’s now in the works for the Eastside’s Ortega Park; it’s a total transformation. How much it will all cost and how it will be paid for remain multimillion-dollar questions. But for right now, City Parks czar Jill Zachary and her lieutenant Rich Hanna have just secured support from the City Council to dream very big dreams for the intensely used but troubled park.
To flesh out those dreams, the council gave Zachary the green light to spend $410,000; of that, $270,000 will come from the general fund and will pay the design costs. Among the key components will be a new multipurpose field made out of artificial turf; natural turf fields, the council heard, have to lie fallow four months out of every 12 just to recuperate to a safe playing state. Replacing the small pool now on the site will be a much bigger facility that can accommodate lap swimming, aquatics instruction, and a waterslide. The basketball courts will be replaced with new courts, and, in addition, there will be ping-pong tables, bocce courts, and beanbag-toss areas. The other major addition will be a skateboard park, the city’s second. There will be night lights to accommodate nighttime play on the courts and field; there are none now. Considerably more parking would be provided, and the whole park will be fenced.
Driving these plans are a combination of factors: the gentrification of nearby neighborhoods, district elections, but most dramatically, the high number of times city police are called to the park in response to complaints. Last year, there were 435. “Crazy things go on at that park,” Zachary said after Tuesday’s council meeting. “Really crazy things.” For example, the Ortega Park bathrooms featured prominently in a rape trial now taking place. Police are frequently called to deal with the loud, the drunk, and the sometimes intimidating; AMR (American Medical Response) is often called in response to drug overdoses.
But it’s also a park that gets intensely used by legions of weekend soccer warriors and the families who gather to watch them while perched comfortably under large picnic umbrellas. The park’s barbecue area has long provided a home away from home for those without living rooms or backyards of their own in which to congregate. In other words, Ortega Park has long been a rich and messy mix. Efforts to quell its wilder elements have proved fruitless. One of the more problematic figures — at least from the police perspective — showed up at one of the several community outreach meetings for the park’s redesign and reportedly gave it his blessing. He has declined, however, to find another place to hang out.
Zachary and Hanna were delicate when addressing the council, but their strategy is clear; the most effective way to change the park’s personality profile is to attract more kids and more families. That’s done by giving them more things to do. Compared to the intense and busy proposal the council reviewed, the current park is spare and laconic.
Some attending Tuesday’s council meeting worried the cure may prove worse than the problem. Architect Jeff Shelton exalted the park’s improvisational opportunities where anyone can create a makeshift soccer field by parking two bikes on the grass as makeshift goals. The idea of putting a fence around the park, Shelton found profoundly offensive. “It seems like everyone has lost their minds,” exclaimed Shelton. “We’re going to build a public park and fence it off?”
With the council’s blessing, Zachary can now hone the plans into something more specific. With environmentally vetted and approved plans, she explained, her department will be poised to take advantage of any number of funding opportunities. She estimated the final park plan could cost in the neighborhood of $15 million.