Redwood City residents enjoy their new ‘magical’ playground

in Community

Redwood City had a “quiet” opening for the highly anticipated Magical Bridge Playground Dec. 1, but word’s out and kids and their families have been descending in droves on this innovative addition to the city’s parks in the weeks since it made its debut.

The culmination of four-plus years of planning and $6.9 million in public and private funding, the new facility at Red Morton Park opened with social distancing and some other Covid-related restrictions in place. But it was hard to think about that amid the high-pitched shrieks and the thunder of little feet racing from slides to swings and back again.

“It is a wonderful feeling to deliver something that people really enjoy,” says Claudia Olalla, the city’s Magical Bridge project manager. “It’s so much work involved, so much planning and so many things have to go right. … And then when it all comes together it’s a big sigh of relief and joy at the same time.”

The day the park opened, for example, Olalla watched a neighborhood child who had to wait in line until it was her turn to be let in. She stood at the entrance, put her hands on her face—and let out a loud squeal. That moment, Olalla says, summed up her feeling of satisfaction: “To have it done and people playing in it and all those kids just having so much fun feels amazing.”

Begun in Palo Alto

The first Magical Bridge playground opened in Palo Alto in 2015, the result of the vision and many years of work by founders Olenka Villareal and Jill Asher to create a play area where all family and community members would be welcome, regardless of age, size or ability. Villareal has two daughters, one of whom is “developmentally very young.” Now 17, she’s a senior at Palo Alto High School in a special program.

This story was originally published in the January edition of Climate Magazine.

Villareal’s realization that there were no parks designed for families like hers set her on course to research playground standards and equipment and develop Magical Bridge Playground’s signature features. Among them are distinct play zones, retreat spaces for those needing a break from play, smooth, seamless pathways and fully accessible swings, spinning features, wide slides and wheelchair access to a two-story playhouse.

The Magical Bridge Foundation was formed in 2016, and the nonprofit worked in partnership with Redwood City to build its new playground. The foundation raised $3.2 million of the cost, the remainder coming from park impact fees paid by developers.

Villareal says it was difficult to raise funds for the prototype Magical Bridge Playground because “nobody knew what I was talking about and what I was building.” When people visit one—especially those who become “kindness volunteers”—they can see for themselves how welcoming these non-traditional facilities are.

In Redwood City, Villareal says, her organization had a governmental partner that “has been nothing short of magical to work with.”

Donors Bridged the Gap

More than 600 individual donors and families contributed “from nickels and dimes from lemonade stands all the way up to donors like Jay Paul Co. that gave us over $1 million toward the project,” Villareal says.

The largest single contribution, it was in addition to an existing Jay Paul sponsorship and came at a critical point for the project, which has had a number of funding and construction challenges over the years. Among them were delays from smoke drifting from wildfires, heavy rain and more recently, a temporary shutdown because of the Covid pandemic. The city’s public works and parks staff took on some of the project elements in-house to reduce construction costs.

Since opening day, the Covid-related restrictions have included a limit on the number of people who can be in the playground at once (80); monitors stand at the entrance to control the flow. The limit had been reached many times last month, but people have been good about leaving so others can come in, according to city staff.

During the initial period, however, some unanticipated problems occurred with skateboarders and bicyclists entering the playground. City staff and other volunteers were called in to keep an eye on things and explain the rules. The city has also tried to communicate through social media and other means that skaters and bikes aren’t allowed.

“This is a unique space for a totally different constituency of user,” Olalla says, noting that there is a nearby skate park. “It’s sad because perhaps what they don’t realize is the damage that they cause when they go in.”

Among those who showed up to staff the park on a Saturday in December was Chris Beth, the director of the parks and recreation department, filling in for someone who called in sick. One of the surprises about being on duty at Magical Bridge during the opening weeks, Beth says, is realizing how much he and his staff have missed being around the kids who use the parks.

“We’re used to gathering people for events and it’s been a year almost and we’ve missed that,” he says, “and having these families enjoy it together has been a wonderful reminder.”

An Energy Release

For neighbors like Erin Meredith, opening day couldn’t come soon enough. Living across the street, she and her husband had been following the construction progress and had been coming over almost every day with their two little boys after it opened.

Though her children aren’t disabled, “it’s something for everybody,” Meredith observes, “an all-inclusive place, which is nice.”

For young children cooped at home, the merry-go-round, slides, slopes and climbing apparatus provided plenty of opportunities to burn off energy.

Patrick Foley, who lives in the Woodside Plaza area, brought his 21-month-old daughter, Piper, to the playground for the first time. “Piper is a very rambunctious little one,” he says, one eye on his daughter as she heads up a slope. “For us it’s always swing, swing, and higher is kind of her go-to. She is fearless, which is great, but also for Daddy a little nervous(-making).”

Theresa Dito of San Carlos had taken her two children to the Magical Bridge in Palo Alto and had been waiting for the one closer to home to open.

“I think it’s cool to have the kids interact with all types of kids so they’re used to and exposed to people who are different,” she says. Dito liked the fact that the park is fenced so she doesn’t have to worry about one of her kids running out into the street while she’s watching the other one.

Future Magical Bridges

Other Magical Bridge Playgrounds are planned at cities including Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Mountain View and Morgan Hill, and plans are also under way for a Magical Bridge design at CuriOdyssey in San Mateo with all the components but not as much space as Redwood City’s ¾-acre playground, according to Villareal.

She acknowledges that Magical Bridge Playgrounds are more expensive to build than traditional ones—they require more space and site preparation and they don’t use a prefabricated ramp. The foundation’s focus now is on making Magical Bridges “more of a destination playground.”

Villareal notes that there are also ways to incorporate some of the design features in the renovations of existing parks and schoolyards, such as replacing intimidating play structures with swings. “Swinging is sort of the original therapy for autism,” she says.