To cast light on how new parks come to exist in Long Beach, it will prove helpful to look closely at a real-life case. The current process of creating a new pocket park in my former neighborhood will serve well as such an example. Earlier I had written about the origins of this future park on Orange Avenue: how the land came to be available, as well as community efforts to advocate for it to become a neighborhood park at all.  During the initial stages of the public design process, I attended a community brainstorming session that brought together local residents, staff from the City Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, and the park’s designated landscape architect.


The meeting was held on an early Saturday afternoon, at the site of the new mini-park itself. Arriving at the bare plot of land, I was greeted by city staff as well as some of my former neighbors. The design team was setting up presentation boards on easels while city staff arranged folding chairs into rows. A good crowd of a couple dozen residents had collected and started to take their seats by the time the city staff were ready. Approaching the meeting area, I was excited to see that Melani Smith, one of the Principals of Melendrez Design Partners, was part of the design team. I knew that the city had retained Melendrez’s services for work in the city, but I did not think we would be so fortunate as to have them involved with this relatively small project. They are a great architecture firm whose involvement in Long Beach will bring a fresh approach to designing the city’s form.


Dennis Eschen, Planning and Development Bureau manager, started off the meeting by outlining the community design process. This initial meeting was a brainstorming session allowing residents to share what they would like to see in the park.  It will be followed later by a meeting in which the landscape architect would present two possible designs for community feedback. There would then be a final presentation for interested parties to give input before the architect creates the actual construction drawings. At that point, city staff would send the chosen design out to landscape contractors to obtain competitive bids. Upon selecting a contractor, construction would take place and the new park would become a reality.


After explaining this process, Dennis Eschen fielded a question regarding the park’s timeline.  He explained that the ultimate completion date for the park depended largely on budget, and would probably be somewhere between 9 and 18 months from the time of the meeting. From there he turned the meeting over to Melani Smith, who introduced members of her team and outlined their approach to the design process.


At that point, Melani and a colleague; Darren Shirai presented a series of boards meant to stimulate discussion among the residents.  An aerial map highlighted the neighborhood and the park’s location. Other boards provided rich imagery from other parks, so as to suggest possible design concepts for the new park.  These included pictures of outdoor exercise equipment, functional public art, play-and-learn installations for children, and a variety of landscape treatments. They handed out survey cards for attendees to fill out with additional ideas they had, as well as colored dot stickers to place on favorable imagery.


As Melani and Darren Shirai discussed the presentation boards, they engaged in a dialogue with residents concerning their vision for the park. Residents spoke of an interest in everything from sustainability (for instance, drought-resistant landscaping and the using recycled materials) to creating a unique character for the park through public art and an emphasis on the historic context around the park.


The brainstorming session was strikingly free of conflict, the most significant disagreement being the issue of the park’s character: should it be an “active” park with a tot lot and recreation facilities such as basketball hoops or soccer goals, or should it be a “passive” park dominated by landscaping and open areas that could be used in a range of ways? Residents living near to the park tended to favor a more passive design, so that the park could function as an oasis from the surrounding urban neighborhood. A few younger boys, however, requested a basketball court. Park staff however, noted that the question was largely moot, since the park’s small size precluded any substantial sports facilities.


The meeting concluded with Melani Smith thanking all in attendance for their input and reminding them that she and her colleagues would return in the future with proposed designs for public comment. Throughout the discussion, nearly every member of the audience shared some opinion regarding the future form of this park. I was actually one of the few that didn’t do so, and my silence was notable enough so that Dennis Eschen pointed it out to me after the meeting. I replied that since the park had already received overall approval from the city, I saw further involvement as unnecessary. Since I had moved out of the neighborhood and would not likely be a major user of the new park, I wished to defer to my former neighbors.  I was just happy that a park would soon be replacing a blighted, empty space.


As the meeting came to an end, many residents lingered to place dots on the image boards and speak directly to the landscape architects about additional ideas. City staff collected survey cards as they put away folding chairs. I was happy to see the variety of options provided to residents for contribute their ideas, and was also encouraged by the level of neighborhood involvement. The community had fought hard for this park to become a reality, and certainly deserved this opportunity to help shape the form it would take. It was clear that all involved, residents and city staff, were looking forward to seeing the results of their discussion presented at the follow-up meeting. I will share the results from that meeting in “A New Park, Part III: Choice.”