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Nature, Inc.: The San Mateo Shoreline Project

By Karen Stretch, regional editor

The natural forms of the picnic shelters, designed to resemble leaves, are made up of western red cedar slats and are bound together by upper and lower steel cables. The cables connect to cast-concrete piers at both ends of the structures. The 18-foot long slats spread out to form the edges of the shelter while arched steel pipes underneath the slats lift the edges and suggest movement in the structure, complimenting the surrounding landscape.
Photo courtesy of RHAA

In a collaborative effort, landscape architects from northern California have created a project based on the natural and cultural systems of San Mateo, a city overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Twenty miles south of San Francisco is San Mateo, California. San Mateo doesn't try to compete with its famous neighbor to the north. Instead it has carved out its own style and attracts visitors and residents with its natural beauty. One of San Mateo's most noted features are its grand views of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. In a collaborative effort, design firms 2M Associates, Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey (RHAA), and landscape architect Dennis Frank, came up with a concept for parks based on the natural and cultural systems of the area, including places that highlighted the wind, water, and marine life of the bay. When it is complete, the San Mateo Shoreline project will encompass 177 acres of the shoreline for residents and visitors of the city to enjoy.

The shellmound "gurgle" fountain turns on when the tide is high and shuts off when the tide is low. Water is fed into the fountain from the San Mateo Creek and empties into the surrounding wetlands. A pre-cast shell pattern of muscles, clams and oysters adorns the fountain and mimics the shellmounds of Native Americans who once inhabited the area.
Photo courtesy of RHAA

"The vision for the Shoreline Parks, particularly those that emphasize a marriage of recreation related to the natural qualities of the San Francisco Bay environment and outdoor education, were developed during the master planning phase," said Patrick Miller of 2M Associates. "This vision for the Shoreline Parks was one strongly supported by the city of San Mateo, its city council, its staff, and very importantly, its residents. They all desired an environment that celebrates the shoreline in a fun, but respectful way - and in a way that encourages stewardship values. The landscape architect's view has really been to facilitate that vision."

Master planning for the San Mateo project began in 1999. The first phase of the multi-phased project was completed in 2005 with the next phases currently underway. Phase one includes Seal Point Park, Ryder Park, a portion of the Bayfront Area, and the Gateway Entry. The city received a $500,000 urban parks of 2001 competitive state grant and contributed additional Redevelopment Agency funds to make the project viable.

Phase two of the project will consist of the completion of Bayfront Nature Area and Harborview Park. The city of San Mateo has appropriated $3 million for the redevelopment of this area. 2M Associates has recently begun working on this phase and will update the design development phase for this component of the Shoreline Parks.

Children enjoy the dome climbing structure by Berliner, which sits on a rubberized surface in Ryder Park.
Photo courtesy of RHAA

The city has applied to the San Francisco Bay Trail Project and the California Coastal Conservancy for grant monies to implement a portion of the third phase called the Bay Marshes. Plans for this area include a boardwalk into the bay's tidal marshes ending at an observation deck equipped with viewing scopes and interpretive panels.

Ryder Park

The Ryder Park play area, totaling 2.8 acres (170 feet long and 64 feet wide), includes play features for children of different age groups. A water play area with misters and fountains helps children to beat the heat of the California sun. Artist Tom Aire-Donch designed the friendly concrete sea creatures that reside in the sandlot. A 3-foot tall, 5-foot long snail made of concrete slowly dribbles water out of the top so children can mix the sand and water while they play. A concrete crab measuring three feet wide and 18 inches tall, keeps his fellow shelled-friend company. There are also three concrete sand dollars measuring three feet in diameter. Writing on the cement walls surrounding the sand dollars encourages the children to dig down and "find creatures in the sand." Other seating walls have phrases about water, clouds, rain, rivers, wetlands and oceans imprinted in the paving. Sitting atop a rubberized surface in multiple shades of blue, is playground equipment from Kompan, Conlastic and Berliner.

Artist Tom Aire-Donch designed the larger-than-life concrete sea creatures in Ryder Park. Designers incorporated an ocean theme into the park to make children aware of the wildlife living in the San Francisco Bay.

To teach visitors about the rich history of the area, 11 interpretive stations with information prepared by the San Mateo County History Museum were installed throughout the parks. Visitors to Ryder Park can push any of three buttons on an audio history panel and hear a story about a young Salson boy whose nearly 4,000-year-old bones were found in the bay; a Chinese fisherman who speaks of the days when Chinese fishing camps became established along parts of the San Mateo Bay shoreline after the railroads were built; or a story about a Padre that camped along San Mateo Creek as he and his party traveled to the Presidio in San Francisco.

Bayfront Nature Area

Located within this 2-acre park is a truly innovative water feature. The shellmound "gurgle" fountain is fed by water from the mouth of the San Mateo Creek as it enters the San Francisco Bay where the water is saline. The fountain, made of concrete with a pre-cast shell pattern (muscles, oysters and clams) turns on and off according to the tide. As the water rises during high tide, the fountain turns on and cascades down the multi-tiered facade. When the water subsides during low tide, the fountain turns off. The fountain also feeds water into the surrounding newly created wetlands. Miller came up with the idea and design of the fountain. He collaborated with Balance Hydroligics, his subconsultant, to ensure proper function. According to Miller, the purpose of the fountain was to draw people out and take notice of the surrounding shoreline. The name shellmound gurgle was chosen because the area in which it sits was the richest collection of Native American shellmounds throughout the region. Shellmounds were large mounds of shells measuring as high as 15 feet. Daily activities such as fishing, hunting and cooking took place in the area surrounding the shellmounds, which were also used as burial grounds. On top of the fountain, a cast bronze map depicts the historic shoreline and location of the shellmounds in the area. The constructed wetlands/channel marsh provides a habitat for a number of bird species found in riparian habitats (habitats along water courses) and freshwater/brackish marsh including: snowy egrets, mallards, killdeer, greater yellowlegs, least sandpiper, rock dove, mourning dove, violet-green swallow, cliff swallow, barn swallow, black phoebe, red-winged black bird, and Brewer's blackbird. Red and Arroyo willows were planted from cuttings along the border of the wetlands.

A 240-foot long wave wall winds along the center of the road leading into the parks. The wall is made from colored concrete and glass monoliths. Mylar backing helps the glass reflect the sunlight.
Photo courtesy of 2M Associates

Seal Point Park

The largest of the three parks encompasses 60 acres and was the site of a former sanitary landfill. Architects worked with geo-technical engineers on this site to ensure a secure area for people to enjoy. Over the landfill are 18 inches of topsoil and an underlying geosynthetic clay liner - to prevent rainwater from seeping into the trash and possibly leaching toxins into the bay. To avoid damaging the liner, only shallow-rooted plants could be used. Dennis Frank, landscape architect for the project, had to choose a plant palette that would respond to these constraints.

A young visitor to the Ryder Park stands on a splash pad enjoying the water play area designed for small children.
Photo courtesy of RHAA

A combination of grasses and wildflowers were hydroseeded using four different seed mixes. The main seed mix (seed mix A) covered the majority of the site and consisted of California brome, blue wild rye, California poppy, beardless wild rye, purple needle grass and six weeds fescue.

Signs and buildings on the site had to be built on spread-footings so that they would not shift or sink.

"Designing on a landfill is always challenging," said Manuela King of RHAA. "The planting limitations, irrigation limitations and other constraints can dictate the final design solution. The benefit to the San Mateo site is that it allowed us to create a more 'naturalistic' landform and high point to overlook the shoreline. It is a particularly good place to watch the planes landing at the San Francisco airport."

A continuous flow of water slowly trickles out of the top of this three-foot tall concrete snail for children to mix with the sand.
Photo courtesy of RHAA

A Welcoming Wave of Concrete and Glass

As a sort of gateway into the parks, a 240-foot long "wave wall" designed by Otto Rigan, an artist from Santa Fe, N.M., weaves along the center of J. Hart Clinton Drive leading into the parks. The wave wall is made of colored concrete and glass monoliths (Benko glass from West Virginia). Seven glass colors varying in length from 5-9 inches long and one inch thick are embedded into the concrete. A Mylar backing helps the glass reflect sunlight.

These spiral play structures, made of stainless steel, were designed by playground equipment company, Conlastic.

Future of the Shoreline

So far, the response to the parks has been extremely positive and the parking lots have been consistently full of happy visitors. Frank says that he is overwhelmed by the response to the park and the amount of use it has seen since the opening.

"My hope was mainly for an attractive and unique design compatible with the shoreline setting that would foster education about the sites environment and attract park users, improve the water quality of the existing drainage ditches within the Bayfront Nature Area and improve the visual quality of the area dominated by transmission lines and other engineered structures," said Frank.
The entire project is expected to be complete in approximately six years.

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June 27, 2019, 2:02 am PDT

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