By Oliver Lazenby
Halfway through the design process for the Birch Bay Community Park, those involved are paring down a long list of ideas. They hope to keep the park a simple staging area for the beach with a balance of parking and flexible open space with some activities.
At a September 1 meeting – the second of three for the park – the park’s landscape architect Bob Droll presented two similar designs that were met with agreement from most attendees, at least on broad concepts.
Droll created the designs for the 4-acre park after gathering citizen input at an earlier meeting and a back-and-forth process with county staff.
Both designs included about 130 parking stalls in a lot on the east side of the park; ADA-accessible picnic tables and standard picnic tables, with some fixed in place around the park’s border and some mobile tables; six unisex bathrooms; some form of shelter; an outdoor shower; a wheelchair ramp to the beach; a small area with play equipment and lots of open, grassy space for flexible uses.
Most attendees agreed on those concepts.
“I think the big thing is making sure there’s parking and open areas where everyone can congregate,” said Alene Johnson, who lives next door to the park in the Golden Tides cabins.
The designs differed mainly in the amount of covered area, the location of walkways, and the size and type of playground area. The two design concepts weren’t meant as a choice, but rather something the community could scrutinize and select elements from.
Like Johnson, many residents wanted to make small changes to the design. Johnson said she would prefer if the park didn’t have a shelter on its southern edge, where it could partially block some of her neighbors’ beach views.
The access road and 130 parking stalls cover 1.18 acres, or approximately 28.1 percent of the total area, making it the biggest element in the park. At the first meeting, people suggested somewhere between 120 and 200 parking spaces.
Droll sought to strike a balance between accommodating parking and maximizing usable park space at the $2.4 million property.
“If we wanted to design enough parking spaces for the largest events, the whole park would be parking spaces and we still wouldn’t have enough,” he said. “So we want to find a balance.”
Droll envisions some of the park’s lawn being used as extra parking during Rollback Weekend or other big events.
County staff expect that the 130 parking spaces will be mostly full during summer days, based on the number of people parking where they shouldn’t be, said Rod Lamb, design and development supervisor for the county parks department.
Some at the meeting thought a playground should be at the south end of the parking lot, a loss of 40 or 50 parking spaces. But in a show of hands, the number of people who preferred more parking outweighed the rest by at least two to one.
Due to space restrictions, the designs left out many of the ideas from a brainstorming session at the first meeting.
“We talked about basketball courts and pickleball courts last time. I drew a couple of those options up and they take up a lot of room,” Droll said. “Even a half-court basketball area takes up a lot of room.”
The key goal of the second meeting, he said, was to narrow down the list of desired features. Typically at these early planning meetings, residents realize they want more in the park than can possibly fit, Droll said.
“This happens in every park. We have 10 pounds of sugar and a five-pound bag. What are we not going to put in that bag is what we’re here to discuss,” Droll said. “What’s the most important thing to this community?”
The meeting had a few dozen attendees, but some demographics were missing.
“I wish more youth came out to the meeting. There’s no one here under 20,” Droll said. Few attendees were under 40. “But you can only get input from the people who come out.”
Some of the more popular ideas from the meeting were: temporary basketball hoops in the parking lot that could be used during the off-season, parking for food trucks and vendors, pushing the parking lot as far east as possible, and an exercise course or other elements that could bring people to the park in winter.
Several groups also suggested a campsite at the park where a volunteer caretaker could live. Host sites are common at state park campgrounds.
“We really want a host site,” said Doralee Booth, Birch Bay resident and chamber of commerce director. “To have a host on site for the safety of the site, I think, is super.”
Droll pointed out that nearly the whole park would be visible from Birch Bay Drive for a passing police officer.
The initial designs didn’t take cost into account. In both designs, the parking lot would be the most expensive feature.
The lot will be constructed with permeable surface material and have infrastructure beneath it for rainwater filtration and retention. Compared to that, other elements such as the bathroom and shelters, landscaping and play areas are not significant cost factors, Lamb said.
Though the park’s design is coming together, crews won’t break ground for a couple of years – most likely not until the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility (known as the Birch Bay berm) is done in spring 2018.
In the meantime, the county will begin applying for grants to fund construction, said county parks director Mike McFarlane. Although Droll’s contract ends this year, the park will be built in phases and its design could be refined in the future.
“As we move through those phases we might make additional tweaks and changes,” he said.
The third and final design meeting for Birch Bay Community Park is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 18 at Birch Bay Bible Community Church. At that meeting, the county, Droll and attendees will discuss finer points of park design, including the size of the playground and what equipment it will have.