‘A holistic standpoint’: Many improvements made to city parks, many more to come | News
At a quarter past 3, the intersection of Potomac Avenue and South Owens Street bestirs suddenly on a weekday.
Children exit Owens Primary School and spill into the street, to the ire of the frazzled crossing guards. Many walk east to their homes in the Lakeview neighborhood or play basketball behind the school’s fence-bound court.
And some walk north, to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. The MLK Park, to include its two playgrounds, remains empty.
“It’s not a very safe park,” said Mariana, a Lakeview resident and parent, while waiting for her daughter outside the school. “I mean, I wouldn’t want my child going there alone.”
For two years, the city of Bakersfield has aggressively renovated its parks, section by section. Over the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to city officials with the Recreation and Parks Department, more than $3.3 million has been approved for park improvements — nearly all of it, including all the playground equipment, from the Public Safety and Vital Services Measure.
“PSVS has allowed us to look at this from a holistic standpoint,” said Rick Anthony, the city’s recreation and parks director. “Instead of just swapping out smaller amenities — applying Band-Aids — we can literally replace things at the time they should be replaced.”
The average life span of a playground set is 15 to 20 years. Anthony said that many of the playgrounds the city renovated had equipment well over 20 years old. PSVS money has also brought other fixes — pavilions, shade structures, fencing and new courts — and paid for the city’s Park Ranger Division.
Anthony said renovating the parks will help revitalize otherwise neglected parts of the city. In his daily commute around town, he sees the renovations are well-received.
“Every time we put in something new or replace it, we see an immediate response of people wanting to be out there and using it,” Anthony said. “These investments have been greatly appreciated by residents who are really excited to see these things coming into fruition.”
Beale Park, which recently received a $500,000 cleanup of its tennis courts, has regular pickleball tournaments.
“It’s a lot safer here (at Beale) than the other ones,” said Victor Lopez, an Oildale resident. “It’s more lit up and (there’s) no people running around — there’s a lot of bad people in the other parts.”
Lopez is a grandpa. He’s also partially disabled, so he can’t keep up with grandkids. His wife, who’s also not too mobile, likes to sit in the car and watch. He said it’s worth the extra 10-minute drive to Beale Park for the serenity that comes with it.
“For him to be able to play and relax — see, he doesn’t even know these kids and yet he’s here playing with them — that’s everything for me, for him to come here and enjoy himself,” Lopez said.
Lopez acknowledged that if other parks in his area were fixed up, he’d be more likely to go to them, so long as they incorporated more outdoor lights.
“I’m not saying the homeless are bad, but they tend to cause a little friction and that’s not someplace I want my grandkids around — there’s too much going on right now,” Lopez said.
In the past couple of years, at least half the parks in the city have seen some scale of renovation. As the city prepares its next budget, officials are turning their attention to MLK Park and others largely within its urban core, which have been subjected to rusty playgrounds and forlorn patches of littered green.
“I have personally rode by parks several times and would not see any kids playing,” Anthony said. “And for a long time, the city had no ability to replace playgrounds and rehab certain structures.”
In the past, projects have focused on parks in richer neighborhoods, generally in western Bakersfield, at the expense of spaces in poorer communities.
“That’s just where the development was happening,” Anthony said. “New houses were being built and new viable businesses were being built. There was a natural tendency to focus on those areas and unfortunately some of the older areas weren’t able to keep up.”
MLK Park, which will require the bulk of future park funds, is bounded by three churches, two schools, a cemetery and a nearby health outreach center. Walking around, its lawn is still littered with glass and detritus, and some trees bear graffiti.
“I do feel like (PSVS) is a very effective tool to bring equity to the city, to bring a balance and not just react to the demand, whether it’s political demand or developers’ demand,” Anthony said. “And I think there’s unanimous support to do something big at MLK because there has been years and years of neglect to that park.”
The concept for MLK Park approved by the City Council, Anthony said, was the largest of the three drawn up. Its estimated price tag: upward of $80 million, with an emphasis on “estimate.”
“That said, we are still technically in the design phase,” Anthony said, adding that the city is also mulling the prospect of state and federal grant funding, including state Proposition 68, which requires that the park qualify as a “regional park.”
A lion’s share of the money would go to the community center, which has for years served as a recreation haven for kids in the area. Officials hope to add administrative offices, two courts, a multipurpose area and commercial kitchen.
Outside, they’ll keep the pool but want to add an amphitheater and two multiuse sports fields. Anthony hopes to make MLK a regional park, drawing people from all over the city for sports tournaments, special events and live entertainment.
“When we do the MLK Breakfast, that gym is shut down for a week and the kids are not able to use it because it takes so much human resource to get the tables and the gym ready,” Anthony said. “The new community center is going to be multiuse, and able to accommodate special events as well as daily recreation.”
For now, the park is still in the design phase, where it will likely stay for another year. Officials hope to begin contractual bids by spring 2024 and break ground by the end of the year. Construction could take a minimum of two years, depending on the contract.
“It’s going to be great, for the whole city,” Anthony said.