Ask any Bay Area old-timer about Playland at the Beach and you’ll likely get a fond response. A mainstay of San Francisco’s seaside for generations, Playland had everything a kid (or kid at heart) could want: roller coasters, photo booths, scary-steep wooden slides, a carousel with a pipe organ, all spread over 10 glorious, corndog-scented acres. But like any memory worth remembering, it didn’t last. After years of declining attendance, Playland closed in 1972. (They saved the It’s-It, thankfully: the ice-cream delicacy, first concocted by the park’s owner, remains a top reason to treasure Bay Area life.)
Jump ahead forty-odd years and there’s another, not-so-different Playland in San Francisco: Playland at 43rd. This one is more officially temporary than the previous, and the corndog quotient is sadly diminished. But it’s just as great to be there. It has a community garden, a barbecue area, an events plaza with a spectacular bent-wood pavilion, and a particularly popular (read: contested, beloved) skate park. It holds regular yoga classes, the mechanic’s shop for a bike rental outfit, and enough good vibes to cover every inch of its acre. Someone is building a fog-catcher to harvest water for the plants. The last time I was there, a cool dad was holding his infant daughter tight and lowering himself onto the skateboard beneath them, for repeated cruises down the gentle slope.
Playland at 43rd adds color and life to the site of a former public elementary schoolyard and its classroom building, which dates to the 1920s. The building was turned into a book-storage facility years ago, but not much had happened to it since, and now the school district can’t fund a proper seismic retrofit. Last year, its neighbors decided to do something, however temporary. Even if the building couldn’t be spruced up, this was one of the largest pieces of public property in the Sunset District: its empty parking lot needed to do more than harbor trash and misplaced sand. The residents first contacted their district supervisor, Katy Tang, who agreed that the site was a prime candidate for rejuvenation through Pavement to Parks. (This program, run by the city’s planning department, helps convert underused pieces of land quickly and inexpensively into pedestrian-friendly parklets and plazas.) The residents now had a planner assigned to the project, a set of procedures for developing the space, and a list of great ideas to make real. All they needed was someone to put the pieces together. When the planning department contacted the San Francisco office of Perkins+Will about the job, office leaders offered to perform the work pro-bono through the firm’s Social Purpose program.
As master-plan architects, Perkins+Will marshalled an array of community resources and energy. Working quickly, the firm created a framework for development, beginning with community charrettes to develop a vision, followed by conceptual design and renderings of each of the park’s 14 activity areas. Residents had sought a whimsical, multigenerational space that fosters play and builds a sense of togetherness, and, for the next few years at least, that’s what they’ve got. (It’s up to the school district, as owner, to decide how long past two years the park will exist.) Much of the detailing, including plantings, climbing structures, and hay-bale seating, came from volunteers who continue on as stewards. Alongside the park’s many functions, there is also a lesson in balancing the limited budget and resources of a temporary site with high-intensity use: it’s sometimes kind of a mess. Of course, community experiments only look ramshackle when they’re getting the right kind of use.
Playland at 43rd is a pleasant 20-minute walk inland from its predecessor. According to city officials, the park is the city’s first community center west of Sunset Boulevard. But ask an old-timer—isn’t it the second?