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What Brings A Playground to Life? -One Answer At Avila Beach

By Jeff Ferber, ASLA, Principal, RRM Design Group

Groupings of natural sandstone boulders from neighboring Santa Barbara County blend well with the man-made outcroppings of the playground and fountain as well as the more detailed seawall planters. The children often prefer these clusters for climbing.
Photos courtesy of RRM Design Group

The History: No Play on Avila Beach

Until recently, Avila Beach, on the Central Coast of California, was no place for children to play.

In the late 1800s, after oil was discovered just south of this quaint beach town, tankers from San Francisco and Los Angeles overshadowed the area, filling up from the pipeline. The conduit extended from a looming tank farm, on the hill above the town, submerging beneath the town to a pier in San Luis Bay.

The shipwreck play feature crashes into the rocky coast of Avila Beach. The "water" (a two-toned blue rubberized surfacing) laps against the stern of the beached boat. The "gangway' ramp connects the ship to the manmade rock formation adjacent to the picnic area. The Ship was built by Texas-based NBGS International.

San Luis Bay became the largest crude oil shipping port in the world between 1914 and 1922, and served an important role to the Pacific fleet during WWII. The area's pristine beach and quaint downtown would eventually pay a price for these carefree days. After years of unseen oil leaks from the pipelines in the mid-1990s, Unocal disclosed that up to 400,000 gallons of crude oil, diesel fuel, and gasoline had leaked into the ground and water off Avila Beach.

The Awakening: A Community Sets Out to Clean Up and Enhance

Landowners, agencies, and community members successfully prompted Unocal to undertake the enormous task of removing the contamination. However, to remove all of it, the company had to dig up the town itself--under buildings, under roads, under houses, and under layers and layers of white sand. Fortunately, with such widespread demolition came an opportunity to rebuild a torn town and provide an enhanced area for play.

In addition to the custom shipwreck playground, RRM specified equipment by Timberfrom and Landscape Structures aimed at younger children. The total playground area is 3,750 square feet, with washed No. 20 "Play Sand" from Crystal Silica Sand Co. cushioning the area below the slide in this view.

Avila's citizens formed the Front Street Enhancement Committee, setting out to devise a plan that would make Avila an even better recreational area than it was years ago. But the initial planning process did not go well. While some envisioned an extensive new image for the town, others wanted Avila rebuilt exactly as it was before. The community became deeply divided, with discussions among the committee, Port San Luis Harbor District, the county, and the California Coastal Commission grinding to a near standstill.

The Healing: Creating and Implementing a Unified Vision

With a deadline to meet, Unocal feared that the planning process would be crippled and stalled by disagreement--so in 1999 they changed direction. The company hired RRM Design Group as the key landscape architect, planner, engineer, surveyor and architect. The community groups knew that they needed consensus, but they were unsure of how to get there until RRM created a solution that included compromise.

The park and beach are linked by a wide promenade with plenty of opportunities for seating with custom benches with kelp imprints by Quick Crete. The seawall has bollards with light fixtures, with the ability to play continued into the evening.

The design team drew inspiration from the town's beachfront location and history, including the San Luis Creek and a cluster of adjacent tide pools. This inspiration turned the community's visions of recreation into a play between land and sea. The final design included a plaza with waves of seashell and aggregate pavement, a local artisan's tile mosaic "Circle of Life," a fountain with tide-mimicking water flow, a curving seawall with starfish-shaped skateboard deterrents, undulating wide steps that doubled as seating facing the sand, basketball courts, showers, spacious ramps providing wheelchair access and an innovative "Cove Shipwreck" playground.

RRM worked with local artists Tres Feldman and Ginny Vreeland to create a plaza overlooking the beach. The heavy duty stone and concrete structure is designed to withstand wave impact. The focal point is a walkable tile inlay Nautilus shell called the "Circle of Life" depicting the history of Avila Beach from the time of the Chumash Indians, to the railroad days of the late 1800s, to the present day after the oil clean-up.

By shuttling ideas (often spontaneously designed on napkins and tissue paper) back and forth among the stakeholders, the team crafted a plan that the community could agree on, a plan that offers access and fun for all.

The Finale: A Playground That Welcomes Play

Play now comes in all forms at Avila. Although the site has always had the beach as a recreational space, the community saw the opportunity to extend that space into its small, newly-excavated downtown. With the new plan, Avila was able to close two sections of Front Street to automobile traffic, creating a plaza, a park, and a playground--all extending to the edge of the beach.

Inspired by adjacent tide pools, this fountain provides a shallow water play area for kids. The water flows in a series of surges that reflect the tidal action of the waves and then recedes back to crevices in the rock formation. Small bronze sculptures of sea stars and snails, which also act as skateboard deterrents, are perched on the artificial rock formation.

Where tankers once moored and oil was king, energetic children and families are now the focus. Every Friday the plaza swells with live music and the cheerful voices of people enjoying the highly-successful Fish and Farmer's Market. And every weekday, the park and its beach surroundings (including a basketball court, picnic areas, paths, and public restrooms) are filled with the squeaks of court shoes and the laughter of children.

Previous to the clean-up, the beach did not have ramps to the beach. This access point was designed to look like a flowing sand drift, providing universal access for all beach and park visitors.

For locals and visiting children alike, the Cove Shipwreck playground is the king of Avila play spaces. In a time when liability fears propel pre-engineered structures, the Avila playground is an imaginative and engaging original space. RRM pursued a unique design that captured the essence of the natural surroundings (a rippling creek meeting an ocean tide) connected to the area's history and encourages imaginative and healthy play. Strategically scaled in a limited space of less than one acre, the playground evokes the following elements with its shipwreck theme: the feel of a local cove, a climbable boat crashing into the headlands, blue rubberized surfacing replicating the tide (and providing safety), a footbridge connecting the sandy cove to the boat and a climbable seal sculpture "swimming" nearby.

The park and playground are immediately adjacent the beach and tide pools providing families with the flexibility of enjoying the ocean and park experiences simultaneously. Picnic areas are set up on the grass and beach.

This jewel of a play space sits in a tiny spot, a space that blends beach with urban edge, the natural with the built. The playground offers a seamless flow between the beach and the green space above, an interface where children and parents can dream, design, and create--all in a safe environment. Built with materials reflecting the surroundings, the playground parallels the soft contours of the beach, the lapping tide and the town's original eclectic charm.

The reinforced concrete "cove" simulation creates a beach-atmosphere sand box adjacent to the ship wreck. Since space was limited in the small park, the scale of the play spaces is tailored well to younger children. Rubberized surfacing provides secondary access to the ship.

Today this lively coastal village at the end of the creek invites all to come play in its clean waters, climb on its model ship, dance on its seashell plaza, dribble on its basketball courts, dip into its tidal fountain, picnic on its abundant sands, and browse its eclectic shops.

Gracie Ferber, the project landscape architect's daughter, sits atop one of the precast concrete play sculptures frolicking near the shipwreck.

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December 7, 2019, 4:13 am PDT

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