When a massive eucalyptus tree fell in King Park this February, the tot lot — a fenced play area for kids ages two to five — was badly damaged. Six months later, the Northbrae tot lot is still out of commission, and the city says it will remain that way until 2020, as it undergoes the lengthy process of reconstruction.
The damage caused by the eucalyptus is visible through the eight-foot security fence surrounding the playground. The three vertical bars that held up the swing set are still standing, but one is noticeably bent. The swings themselves, along with the horizontal bar that holds them, lie on the ground against the fence. One bench was demolished, along with a garbage can, and the wooden floor of the play structure has fallen through. There are also multiple holes in the spongy surface material.
In the weeks following the incident, the city removed the tree and stump, fenced off the tot lot and repaired the damaged asphalt surrounding it. Massive tree removal is not factored into the budget, said Scott Ferris, director of the Berkeley’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Waterfront. The $17,000 price tag for the tree removal came out of the department’s $450,000 minor maintenance fund.
Ferris said the amount of remaining damage goes beyond the scope of routine repairs, and the path forward is complicated by several factors: insurance, code and the fact that the park is not city property. The city leases the park from Berkeley Unified School district.
The city has filed an insurance claim for $375,000, all of which would go toward reconstructing the tot lot with similar elements, or “as was.” The insurance company therefore has a say in the design of the replacement park. The city also set aside an additional $50-$100,000 of its own budget to construct play elements in the space where the eucalyptus once stood.
Because the city needs to replace the play structures, which were built in 2006, wholesale, they are beholden to current California building code and must ensure the entire facility is up to current standards, including ADA accessibility requirements.
“This is significant damage — it’s not just a maintenance project,” Ferris said.
Because the city leases the park from Berkeley Unified School district, the district will be consulted about any major changes, and the construction must be approved by State Department architects.
The parks department has a long journey ahead. They’ve just awarded a design bid to Berkeley’s Harris Design, who have taken soil samples and begun to survey the site’s elevation. Over the next few months, the firm will draw up conceptual designs to present to the community in the fall.
Once the city understands the preferences of the community, the architect will finalize the design plan, which will then be sent out for approval by the school district, the DSA and the City of Berkeley. The plans will go through the city’s planning department to receive the proper permits, then the city will begin the bidding process for construction.
Sheila Jordan, former superintendent of schools for Alameda County, lives only a short walk from King Park, which is adjacent to King Middle School and the King Pool, with its entrance on Hopkins Street. She regularly takes her grandsons, ages 13, four and two and a half to the park. She says the tot lot, which used to be a “sanctuary” is now a “monument to bureaucracy.”
“It’s a punishment for babies,” Jordan said. “It’s silly.”
Jordan has spent a significant amount of time talking to community members and people within the City of Berkeley about the apparent lack of momentum in repairing the park. In a letter she drafted to send to the City Council, she says the city’s list of complicating factors “represents bureaucratic babble in the service of inaction, delay and contempt for park visitors and constituents.”
“How much money do we need to spend to fix a park that was functioning very well before this?” Jordan said. “If they want to come in and get us a new structure and new foam in here, OK. How long will that take? Is that a year’s worth of work?”
Chief among Jordan’s complaints is the fact that the defunct park has become an eyesore, with weeds growing around the fence — which the City recently addressed — and graffiti cropping up on signs. She says it’s a shame the once beloved park has become a blight.
“It’s not a crime scene for God’s sake,” Jordan said. “Let’s clean it up.”
Jordan’s husband, Marty, says the structure is “in great shape.” He says with a little carpentry, it could be fixed in “about two hours, plus a trip to Home Depot.”
Ferris acknowledges that perhaps a devoted volunteer could repair the structure, but the reality is that the city has to use licensed architects and contractors for liability reasons. While architects and construction firms assume liability for flaws in their work, community volunteers do not, so in the event of an accident, the city would take the fall.
District Five Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she’s also struggling to understand the complexities of the holdup, but she understands there are levels of “mind-boggling bureaucracy” at play. When unforeseen things happen, safety — in the short and long term — are always her number one priority.
“There are state-level regulations about play areas, and you can imagine that playgrounds and play areas are where accidents can happen to children,” Hahn said. “It would not surprise people to learn that for that reason it’s regulated, so you’ve got that extra layer. (The tot lot) is a small location, but it’s not exempt from all the rules that would apply.”
Hahn said she is working with city staff to expedite the process, but she also said she understands that the parks department has a lot on its plate.
“They’re not sitting around waiting for a tree to fall,” Hahn said.
In the meantime, Hahn says this is an opportunity to improve the park and to deploy city resources to evaluate its trees, which includes another giant eucalyptus.
The tree that fell onto the playground on Feb. 26 did so not because it was diseased or damaged, but rather because of heavier-than-usual rainfall and high winds that night, city spokesperson Mathai Chakko said at the time.
The trees in King Park have been visibly inspected twice in the past six months by the city’s urban forestry unit, and they’ve all been deemed healthy and sound, according to Ferris. But he added that all trees are risky, especially large ones.
In January the driver of a car was killed when a huge eucalyptus fell onto his car on the UC Berkeley campus.
As the city moves forward with replacing the tot lot, Ferris wants community members to know that, although the park remains unusable, things are happening behind the scenes.
“I know people are concerned about us getting this on track as soon as possible,” Ferris said. “We’re running as fast as we possibly can to get it open again. But all these engines take time. City and school district bureaucracy, plus requirements and permitting just takes time.”
Correction: Scott Ferris clarified that the city is working with Berkeley’s Harris Design not Harris and Associates out of Concord.
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