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Civic Center playground reopens on Valentine’s Day

A heartwarming moment three and a half years in the making

Happy kids bouncing on a trampoline-like net in front of SF City Hall. Photo by Lindsay Upson, courtesy of SF Rec & Park

Civic Center’s Helen Diller Playground, which has sat in the shadow of City Hall for 20 years, will finish its year-long redesign and reopen to the public on Valentine’s Day, hopefully capturing the hearts of San Francisco children once again.

The city began demolition of the old Diller Playground, a gift to the city from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, founded in 1999 by real estate tycoon Sanford Diller and his wife Helen, on Valentine’s Day 2017, planning a nine-month project to replace the aging site with a more modern design, to the tune of another $10 million.

But as if often the case with civic projects, the playground (technically a pair of playgrounds sharing common space) overshot its original play date schedule.

Although the Recreation and Parks department at one point estimated the new finishing date as “spring 2018,” they managed to scale that back a month or so and plan a reopening one year after the groundbreaking on the project.

Hoodline notes that, on top of the new play apparatuses, which include a so-called “cloud forest,” a kind of treehouse/jungle gym hybrid with nets inspired by photos of San Francisco’s habitual overcast, the lighting around the Civic Center area gets to have a little fun too:

An interactive ground light display spans the 140’ by 50’ plaza between the two play areas. The display, titled “Karl,” uses heat sensors and lights to simulate the characteristics of the weather phenomenon.

Fifty-two light fixtures spread across both playgrounds will create a “Pixel Forest,” with animated patterns integrating the two playgrounds and responding to people’s movements with bursts of lighting.

An early design for what would become the “cloud forest.”
Courtesy of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

A 2013 City Hall assessment found that locals prefer the central location of the Civic Center play place, but complained that it had become “worn and tired” and the equipment “not challenging enough,” that the layout was inconvenient and created “unclear pedestrian access.” The lack of lighting also made the park feel unsafe in the evening.

The city held its first public meeting about the possibility of a redesign in July of 2014, making the upcoming reopening an occasion nearly four years in the making.

The jungle gym overhaul is a small first step in the city’s ongoing plan to rehab Civic Center, which late Mayor Ed Lee’s administration determined in 2017 had become “unwelcoming.”