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Marina Park Playground, Newport Beach, Calif.
Landscape Architecture by Rabben/Herman Design
Office (R/Hdo), Newport, Beach


This aerial site plan shows the Marina Park Site, about 10 acres located between Balboa Boulevard and Newport Bay between 15th and 18th streets, in Newport Beach, Calif. The west end of the property housed 57 mobile homes, although the city had zoned the land as parkland back in 1919. One of the first tasks was relocating the mobile homes, as they blocked views to the bay. The park design has dramatically open up over 1,100 linear feet of waterfront to view, while enhancing recreational access to the bay with docks, slips and facilities for sailing instruction, new rest rooms, improvements to the vessel launch area and 177 parking spaces.

In the LASN editorial review meeting a few months back, the publisher and editorial staff looked at some 70 playground submittals for the current issue you are reading. We went through the submittals and began selecting the featured playgrounds. It was difficult to make those selections, as there were many worthy playground projects.

While we were selecting projects, publisher George Schmok said, "Hey, I was just at a great playground in Newport Beach (he has a boat moored in the bay). We spent an hour playing around the park. We should do that one, too. It has a big lighthouse with a slide coming out of it, and the playground is all safety surfacing and sand."

A quick Google image search for "Lighthouse Park" brought up the playground, which turned out to be called Marina Park. It also brought up the landscape architecture firm for the project: Rabben/Herman Design Office (R/Hdo) of Newport, Beach, a firm whose work we first published in 2008 (Saddleback Church)

I knew the firm from the Saddleback project, but also knew the founding principle, William Rabben, from my college days. I recall attending an event at U.C. Berkeley where he had just transferred, and viewed some of the design work produced by him and the other students in the landscape architecture program. I believe that was 1971.

The Story Behind the Park
Marina Park is in Newport Beach, Calif., more specifically, on Balboa Peninsula. Newport Beach (pop. 85,287) is in the "OC," Orange County, a well-heeled community some 40 miles south of LAX. Newport Beach has a special significance in my life, as it's where I lived (Balboa Island) when I first moved to OC (1979), despite not being "well-heeled."

The idea for a municipal waterfront park on the Balboa Peninsula goes back to 1983. After about 24 years of discussions and negotiations, which included purchasing the mobile home leases on site, conceptual plans for Marina Park were approved by the Newport Beach City Council in late 2007.

Over the next six years, city staff, and consultants worked to process an environmental impact report; negotiate a tideland boundary agreement with the California State Lands Commission; obtain regulatory permits from the Army Corp of Engineers, State Water Quality Resources Board, State/Federal Fish and Wildlife and the California Coastal Commission. For Dan Herman, the partner in R/Hdo (Dan supplied the photography for this feature), the story behind Marina Park began in 1988 when he took a sailing class with the city of Newport Beach Park's Department. The class convened on the beach facing Newport Bay at 18th street on Balboa Peninsula. The beach was narrow and the class sailors had to drag the boats across the hot sand and into the bay to set sail.

Fast forward to 2004, and Dan's son Kyle was now sailing from the same beach for "Friday Fun Day." While unassuming and rather small, the beach was the best and biggest public beach in Newport Harbor. Note: The beaches opposite the harbor facing the Pacific are significantly larger and home to the "Wedge," a famous body surfing spot where when the waves roll in on a south swell and meet the obstruction of the rock jetty, the waves dramatically increase in size, sometimes up to 30 feet, and break precipitously on the shore with frightening force.

A year later, in the spring of 2005, Tom Billings, Craig Morrisett and Joe Horra, representing Protect Our Parks (POP), asked R/Hdo to help them prepare a proposal to develop a park for the portion of the beach occupied by the mobile homes. The previous year, this same group helped lead a citizen referendum in Newport Beach to overturn approvals for a hotel proposed for the site.

"Little did I know that this park proposal would initiate a 10-year journey," says Herman. R/Hdo worked with POP to prepare a concept plan called "the Window to the Bay," a park with a 1,200 foot opening to Newport Bay, an idea initially emphasized by relocating 40 mature palms into a fan shape to orient views to the bay. Herman drew up the first plan on his living room coffee table late one evening.

After working with POP for over a year, the city choose the R/Hdo plan over five competing proposals as the blueprint for a new 10.5 acre park. At that point, the city asked POP to hire R/Hdo to lead the public participation for a detailed master plan. After over 50 meetings and 18 months a final plan was crafted that received unanimous Newport Beach City Council approval in 2008.

The plan included a 23-slip visiting vessel marina; a community center; a proper sailing center with a basin and docks designed specifically for youth sailors; lots of open lawn; a wider, bigger and higher beach that would not flood during high tide; a nautically themed playground; lots of parking; and a site next to the playground to build a new Girl Scout house, which runs programs that allow the local Girl Scouts to experience the bay, nature and the environment.

The plan featured a glass light house tower, the idea of Mayor Ed Selich, and a red and white light house inspired by one in the Abacos Islands visited by Herman's family on a sailing vacation. The plan also included a beach side restaurant that the city would need to find a vendor to operate. Not so coincidently this final plan was almost a duplicate of the plan crafted with POP two years earlier.

The Landscape Architects As Lead Consultant
The city asked R/Hdo to be the lead consultant and assemble and manage a team to prepare the construction documents, assist in obtaining all required approvals and to observe the project construction. After a long and difficult approval process, involving the State Tidelands Trust, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Coastal Commission, construction started in 2013. The city separated the construction into four packages: demolition; seawall construction and dredging of the marina basin; constructing the Community/Sailing Center and park; and building the marina docks and gangways.

Construction began in Dec. 2013, with an estimated completion date of spring 2016 and a budget of $39.5 million. The project came in several months ahead of schedule and under budget.

The official grand opening was held December 5, 2015. It had all come to fruition: the big relocating of the palms to focus views upon the bay; fighting to get buildings with two deck levels to allow dramatic views of the bay; introducing a 23-slip visiting vessel marina; Dan Herman's "original little scribbles" of the playground lighthouse and slide; and the lighthouse towers, creating icons for the peninsula and Newport Harbor.

"It reminded me why designing parks is my favorite kind of project," Herman said. "The Newport Beach City Parks Department organized a fantastic event, featuring lots of ceremony, activities, and tours of all of the facilities. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing children, families and seniors enjoying your creation."

No more pulling your boat across the sand into the bay; no more flooded beach; and no more mobile homes on land the city zoned as parkland in 1919. During the dedication, Mayor Ed Selich, who chaired the ad hoc Marina Park task force, declared Marina Park a community effort and the crown jewel in the city's park system, "We could not agree more," says Herman.

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2016.

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November 20, 2019, 2:57 pm PDT

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