The neighborhood around Houghton Park in North Long Beach has long-awaited improvements to its beloved greenspace in Uptown.

Every year, the Uptown Jazz Festival draws hundreds to the park to celebrate the vibrant community through music, food and dancing, activating a space that otherwise has fallen victim to the same issues that affect the city’s most vulnerable areas: crime and homelessness. Some residents talk about avoiding the park altogether, saying that they feel unsafe bringing their children and grandchildren to play at the Houghton Park playground.

These were just some of the concerns expressed at the Doris-Topsy Elvord Community Center last week, where city officials presented conceptual designs for the massive $3 million Houghton Park playground renovation they are eager to break ground on within the next year and are confident will activate the space year-round, potentially minimizing the issues that affect the park today.

“We want to make the other parks in the city jealous because our playground is the best,” said District 9 Councilmember Joni Ricks-Oddie. She envisioned a place that highlights the musical history of the Houghton Park community while also being an accessible, safe and fun place for children to play.

The theme of the playground will be music, capturing the vibrant character of the community, as well as nature. The park’s existing sound garden will be enhanced with new equipment and the concept designs show the playground being divided into different zones for varying age groups.

Younger kids ages 2 to 5 would have access to traditional slides, swings, and a seesaw in addition to various pieces of sound-making equipment like dance chimes and wind pipes affixed to the ground, drums, and sound cushions.

A conceptual rendering of the nature exploration center and sound-making equipment at Houghton Park. Rendering courtesy of Long Beach Public Works.

Older children aged 5 to 12 would be able to play on a bigger structure equipped with a tall slide, a larger swing set, a tipi carousel, supernova and climbing structures.

Accessible equipment would include a wheelchair-accessible carousel and excavator, inclusive twister and communication boards. An important element is ensuring that the playground is catered to children of all developmental stages and abilities, officials said.

A conceptual rendering of the swings and sound garden at Houghton Park. Rendering courtesy of Long Beach Public Works.

In addition to the playground equipment, the concept design also included updates to the picnic and seating area around the playground. The seating would act as a barrier surrounding the playground area to prevent kids from running out onto the parking lot while also being multifunctional.

Additionally, the designs include a nature exploration area where children can play on wooden structures while being surrounded by native plants and trees.

The conceptual designs were just the starting point to give the community an idea of what the park could look like and what the scope of the $3 million project would allow. The purpose of the meeting, however, was to gather input from those who would use the park most frequently before creating final designs.

A conceptual rendering of the Houghton Park playground project. Rendering courtesy of Long Beach Public Works.

Residents expressed awe at the beauty and uniqueness of the proposed playground elements but did not hold back from voicing their concerns.

“The design is beautiful but it’s nowhere near inclusive,” said Maricela de Rivera. De Rivera has two able-bodied children but said that her daughter’s best friend who uses a wheelchair wouldn’t be able to use any playground equipment that isn’t on a flat surface or near sand.

Charlene Angsuco, capital projects director for the Public Works Department assured her that sand will be limited to a small area of the playground.

“The only truly accessible parks for children with physical disabilities are in Lakewood,” de Rivera said. She challenged the city to hire a consultant who understands the needs of someone with significant physical disabilities before the plans are completed.

Maricela de Rivera, a Long Beach resident, said that while the concept designs for the Houghton Park playground are beautiful, they are nowhere near inclusive. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

David Castaneda brought up the issue of homelessness at the park. “You can have the most beautiful park but if there is a homeless encampment around there, nobody is going to want to go. It’s a safety issue,” he said.

A representative from the city’s Homeless Services Department acknowledged the concern and said that while homelessness has gone up, the housing crisis has exacerbated the issue and the city is not fully equipped to address it.

“With where this world is at, where the city is at … we are doing our best,” they said.

Twice a week, a staffed Mobile Access Center sets up at the park to connect folks to services offered at the Multi-Service Center, the city’s hub for homeless resources. With over 3,000 homeless people living in the city and not nearly enough shelter beds to house them, many have resorted to sleeping in parks and open spaces.

Since April, Councilmember Ricks-Oddie said that the city has made 183 contacts with the encampment at the park. Twice a week, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine cleans up the encampment and surrounding area, but the problem persists because folks will simply move their stuff elsewhere for a few days and then come back, she said.

“We’re committed to addressing this in the most compassionate manner,” Ricks-Oddie said.

A couple of residents also questioned whether or not the city could redistribute some of the money that will be used in the playground to invest in other areas of the park. One resident suggested adding better lighting and another suggested improving the outdated skatepark on the southwest corner of the park and adding security cameras to make it safer.

Brent Dennis, director of the Recreation and Marine Department, said that citywide, there are about $1 billion in park improvement needs, and having $3 million allocated towards one playground is a “small step forward.” A key part of addressing the homelessness and crime issues raised at the meeting, Ricks-Oddie said, is activating the space, and the playground is the place to start.

Funding for the project was kick-started with $200,000 from Measure A to start the design process, according to the Public Works Department. The city also received $2 million in state funding allocated by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, and there is $800,000 coming from the mayor’s ‘Elevate 28’ plan.

After reviewing the feedback received at the meeting and making adjustments, the city could break ground on the playground as early as fall of 2024 and could unveil the new additions by 2025.

“We want to make this a place that our community can be proud of and reflects what this community deserves,” Ricks-Oddie said. “That’s what these meetings are all about.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to show the correct council district for Ricks-Oddie.