The sheer scale of the playground proposed for LaSalle Park promises a vast playland unlike any in Western New York.
The custom play areas are geared for exploration, adventure and education through an emphasis on nature, waterways and the region's industrial past. Among the playground's features: a giant-sized migratory heron known to the Niagara River Corridor that will be a launching point for children's slides; Erie Canal shipping boat and "Silo City" structures for climbing; and a toddler fishing village.
The 2.5-acre playground to be located in the center of what will become Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park is part of a $40 million remake now underway by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. An additional $10 million will fund an endowment for the park's long-term care.
Plans for the waterfront playground on Buffalo's Lower West Side are still preliminary, and some details could change. But the overall concept and layout are set, according to the park designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a Chicago-based landscape architectural firm.
"We really wanted to embrace the character of the City of Buffalo, like the harbor, its postindustrial nature and the richness of Lake Erie and the Erie Canal," said Kate Jirasiritham, one of the playground designers.
"It looks awesome," Columbus Park resident Dan Brady said after getting a look at a large diorama of the playground following a recent presentation at Waterfront Elementary School.
"I think it's fair to say it's beyond anything we have seen before in Buffalo," Brady said.
The playground is being designed for children from toddlers to age to 12.
"Overall, I'm super-excited. These are really, really good landscape architects," said Coryn Kempster, an architect who was also at the elementary school with his family to learn more about the playground.
"It's really nice to see Buffalo doing it properly," Kempster said. "The park overall is going to be a fantastic thing for the city."
Van Valkenburgh Associates' approach is reflected in its mission statement: "Parks are made for people. ... Sensitive to context, adaptable, and welcoming to all, our parks are born of the belief that democratic landscapes are essential to livable cities."
The firm has received numerous honors for design excellence in parks. Among them: Its master plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park was awarded the Brendan Gill Prize from the Municipal Art Society of New York in 2010. The company was named Firm of the Year in 2016 by the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Two playgrounds designed by Van Valkenburgh Associates were among a dozen mentioned in an August 2019 National Geographic article, "12 Mind-Bending Playgrounds Around the World."
One was Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with a Tarzan swing, two-story slide, marsh garden and sandbox billed as the largest in New York City. The other, the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Okla., boasts a 5-acre Adventure Playground.
The landscape firm also designed Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, which has a playground about the same size as the one planned for Buffalo.
Safety and accessibility, Jirasiritham said, will be built in to each facet of the new Buffalo playground.
Soft, ADA-accessible surfaces are called for depending on the level of use. They include sand, wood fiber and a special synthetic play surface. Also prominent: safely sanded painted wood and imaginative playground equipment from Monstrum, a Copenhagen-based company founded by former theater set designers.
'Unique to Buffalo'
An appreciation for Buffalo's history is evident throughout the playground's design.
"The biggest thing we want to do is to make sure the playground is very unique to Buffalo, and that people can go and feel like it's theirs," said Paloma Garcia, the park's project manager. "We want it to reflect the really rich history that is in the city and on the site."
The playground will have enough to offer for kids to immerse themselves for hours at a time, or even a full day, Garcia said. But the park is also being designed with caregivers in mind.
"I think it's easy to overlook parents and caretakers and grandparents, who are going to spend the same amount of time at the playground as the kids," Garcia said. "So, we need to make sure there is shade for them and places to sit and be comfortable while their kids are having fun."
There will be vehicular access and close proximity to ball fields and a new pedestrian bridge crossing the highway into a residential neighborhood. The toddler play area, with customary playground features such as swings and a sandbox, will be near the picnic area.
Michael Van Valkenburgh said the playground will provide immersive and diverse experiences while giving the park "a center it doesn't have now."
"So many playgrounds are in a single space, and all the kids are held in that one place," Van Valkenburgh said. "This will have a complexity that lets different kinds of kids play in different areas.
"Children are a microcosm of the rest of the world – they're all different, and have different capacities for activity," he said. "Some love active play, while others like passive play. We're making sure we have places for all kinds of kids to play in."
Like Tulsa's Gathering Place, the Buffalo playground calls for a giant bird, in this case a least bittern that frequents the Niagara River Corridor.
"Birds are like prehistoric animals, but I don't think anybody would be afraid of a bird," Van Valkenburgh said. "They're kind of goofy."
At Waterfront Elementary School and the Belle Center, both on the West Side, children were recently invited to share their ideas on what they wanted to see in the playground.
They looked at pictures and marked the ones they liked. They also used construction paper and clay to create things they wanted to see, which were photographed for the designers to later consider.
"It's pretty exciting to have an ability to have some impact," Dan Brady said as his child participated.
Robert Shibley, a senior fellow at the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, which is partnering with the Wilson Foundation and the City of Buffalo on the park project, said getting children's feedback has been a priority. Belle Center children were sent out with cameras during an earlier stage of the process to share what they liked and what they would change about the park.
"We start from the premise, 'Who's the park for?' " said Shibley, also the dean of UB's School of Architecture and Planning. "How do you get children in a range of ages to express what they care about in a way you could actually take action around? 'What do you like best? What would you like to see that you don't see? Can you show me?' "
Kempster, who attended the recent presentation at Waterfront Elementary School, offered one criticism: the boat planned for the waterscape section of the playground.
"There is already a boat playground at the Outer Harbor, and a boat [in a sandbox] at Canalside," said Kempster, who prefers more abstract playground equipment to engage children than predetermined objects.
"It feels lazy, but to counterpoint that, the idea of incorporating silos and locks feels like something more authentic and specific to Buffalo," he said.
The boat, however, was singled out by Leslie Peter, at the presentation with Izaak, her inquisitive 2-year-old son.
The expansive playground is part of a reimagined LaSalle Park that will see topography, including hills and valleys, added to what is now a flat park.
A lagoon with native Western New York vegetation, improved waterfront access, embellished ball fields, cycling paths, an athletic loop and enhanced dog run are also planned.
Planning so far has involved 1,100 community surveys, 22 residents who visited parks in Brooklyn, Chicago and Cincinnati, and technical guidance from nearly 20 organizations.
Patience may have to truly be a virtue in waiting for the playground to open.
The park's groundbreaking is now expected in spring 2022, later than the 2020 date given when the grant was announced in October 2018. Completion is now expected in 2024.
But Garcia said calendar targets will become clearer after the schematic design is completed by early December. That will give the firm a better understanding of the challenges ahead, including if construction will need to be phased in over time.
"Once we understand the timeline of construction we will be able to give a more specific timeline of the playground itself," Garcia said.
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