Delle Willett |Art on the Land
I recently met with landscape architects from San Diego’s Schmidt Design Group, Inc., “landscape architects of record” for the new Waterfront Park on the Embarcadero, for some after-opening stories.
Here’s what Glen Schmidt (Principal-in-Charge), Marney Jensen, (Associate) and Jeff Justus, (Principal and Project Manager) had to say:
What was your role in the landscape design of the park?
We were part of the McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. design/build team. Hargreaves Associates, a landscape architectural firm from San Francisco, created the original master plan for the park. Our role was to implement a design that followed their original master plan within a certain budget. We also significantly modified the children’s play area from their original master plan design. We highly compliment Hargreaves Associates for their design; it provided great bones for the park.
How would you describe the playground?
The playground is a lot different than the original Hargreaves plan. Theirs was very sculptural and simple. With a go-ahead from the [County] Supervisors, we made it into a more complex playground with a huge variety of play activities with an urban, architectural feel. It’s very popular; the kids seem to really enjoy it.
While none of the playground equipment is custom, we selected structures that haven’t been installed in San Diego. Some are the first in the state, such as the “pearls” that we found in New York. They’re a lot of fun, new and different, climbable. The younger kids lay on them; the older ones use them to test their balance.
The spinner is also hugely popular. There’s always a group of kids standing around looking for one little piece they can grab on to.
With all the climbing equipment, we’ve mitigated injuries with a special rubberized surfacing displayed with various colors of blue and grey in large sweeping arcs.
One of the central features of the playground is a large climbing mound with slides, as well as three smaller mounds — perfect spots for parents to watch their kids playing in the playground.
One of the challenges we faced was that the children’s playground and mounds are located over the parking structure. Interestingly, the structure is four feet below the water table and has 75-foot supporting piers that are founded into bedrock. We couldn’t have more than two feet of soil over the parking structure to keep the weight factor low. So, we created the elevations of the mounds with polypropylene foam. They are light, structurally sound, and hold the shape without the weight. This solution was unique to the project.
A trademark of Schmidt Landscape Design is the use of art. How do you use artwork in this waterfront park?
The play area was designed to accommodate future sculptures. The pathways meander to spaces that will be perfect for unique, play-friendly sculptures to be added in the future. Supervisor [Ron] Roberts is a big proponent of continuing to add art to the park, and we’ve talked with him about the great potential of the play area.
We’re also working on some ideas to incorporate art work in the northern gardens. There’s already some art in the stairwells to the parking garage [by Harold Cohen and Allison Renshaw] and we hope to see more added as the park evolves.
Can you describe the landscaping for me?
This was a big project; there’s 12 acres of landscape.
On the north side of the building, there are a series of contemplative gardens that celebrate the diversity of plant species that thrive in our region, adapting well to our climate, that are drought-tolerant, but still have an interesting, colorful and exotic look.
There are over 45 different shrub species in the north gardens, and we are working with the County now to add identification signs to that area. It’s going to take some time for the plants to mature, but they are already filling in nicely.
What kind of trees did you design into the park?
We specified 221 new trees of 12 different species.
Working with landscape contractor ValleyCrest, [we] searched all over Southern California to find them, since some species are a little rarer. There are trees throughout the park and over time they will create more and more shade.
The Hargreaves plan called for cork oaks along the north and south ends of the park, but we weren’t able to find the quantity or size that were needed. After much searching we went with a native coast live oak; they’re going to be beautiful.
The 60 trees along the promenade are Tipu trees. They’ll get to be about 30 feet wide and 40 feet tall and will create lots of shade. It will create what’s called a “pleached allee” where the trees on either side of the promenade will grow over it and touch, creating a full canopy of shade.
We also planted camphor trees, magnolias, queen palms, jacarandas, Torrey pines, flame trees, dragon trees and more.
Another interesting feature is there were historically significant existing clusters of Senegal palms on site. Five of these very large groupings of palms were boxed and stored on site during construction and then successfully relocated in the park. It was quite an operation to watch ValleyCrest move these huge palm groupings.
Whose idea was the fountain?
The fountain was part of Hargreaves’ design, which we implemented and detailed with the fountain designer, Aquatic Design Group. One of the changes we made was the fountain surface, which was originally all granite. Since the fountain was intended for active use we carefully scrutinized the texture. We used a special top-cast concrete treatment sprinkled with flakes of granite and other stones to create a very durable and slip-resistant surface that feels like stone.
What’s cool about the fountain is its dramatic scale. It’s a wondrous place for kids of all ages. The bigger kids position themselves under the large fountain sprays, where the smaller children play in the very tame reflecting pond part of the fountain, only one inch deep.
And that’s what’s been gratifying — to see how popular it is with so many age groups. It’s so fun to just close your eyes and hear their cries of delight. We love to see how much joy this brings people, especially kids.
How much did you plan for the park’s heavy usage?
The park is available for private and public events so we reinforced large areas of the lawn with a turf-grid material so that people can set up stages and structures for different festivals and events and not hurt the grass. There’s also a large vault with access to power, and pedestals in select locations so you can plug into power.
The County also has a long-term plan to add a restroom on the north side so there’s one on each end of the park.
We kept the wedding arbor on the grounds in front of the building. It’s a cherished, sacred spot with more weddings per year than any other site in all of San Diego. People even come back there to visit for their anniversaries. The historic structure is something people remember, so we kept changes to a minimum: We added a small concrete pad in the front of the arbor and an accessible walkway.
How much is the park being used?
People thought that the park would be popular but not to the level it is — it’s really been packed with hundreds of people on weekdays and weekends. It’s rewarding to see and exciting to be part of the team that helped make it happen.
Two things that make it successful: There’s a real deficiency in Downtown parks; 35,000 people live there and they don’t really have a place to go. And it’s only two blocks to the trolley station, so we’re seeing people from all parts of the county as well. It costs a lot to go to a water park, or SeaWorld, but this is a free waterpark. You can bring a picnic. The kids can play all day in the playground and fountain.
How is the park changing?
One of the County’s requested changes is to add more picnic tables and shade for the visitors because of its popularity, which we are doing. We are also working on adding some paving at the fountain to eliminate the chance that water could be redirected out of the fountain basin.
So that’s how it’s evolving and it’s just going to get better as the plants and trees mature.
The Waterfront Park is positioned on either side of the County Administration Center, located at 1600 Pacific Hwy, Downtown. For more information, visit sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/Waterfrontpark.html or call 619-232-7275.
—Delle Willett cut her teeth traveling as the daughter of a career Navy man. A graduate of USD with a BFA in hand, her career in marketing and public relations has flourished for over 30 years. An active volunteer for various local organizations, she currently works as a freelance publicist and writer when she’s not traveling the world with her husband, a retired airline pilot. Delle can be reached at email@example.com.