Advocacy group is not playing around

At 22, Jonathan Gerrard can remember the rush he got as a boy playing at Irvine's Adventure Playground.

Gerrard grew up to work there as an employee but was laid off in November. He's part of an advocacy group, Defend Adventure Playground, which has been trying to save the playground from being demolished by the city and lobbying city officials to reach a compromise that would preserve the playground's adventurous feel.

"Growing up in Adventure Playground, there was a lot of stuff you could do that was dangerous, you really got a sense of thrill and of life," Gerrard said. "You can't put foam around every aspect of your kid's life. There's kids that grow up playing Xbox and that's safe. That's not a really creative, fulfilling life."

The city has now agreed to turn away the bulldozers from the playground in University Community Park on Beech Tree Lane that is a popular recreational site to many families.

Built in 1977, Adventure Playground is one of three such parks remaining in the United States. The other two are in Huntington Beach and Berkeley.

Adventure playgrounds started in Europe and were designed for kids to learn risk-taking, imagination and independence. There aren't any plastic castles or any fake grass. Want to build a fort? Here are the tools and the wood to build it. Want to get wet? Ride that tire down the river.

Kids and volunteers build almost every structure, from bridges to houses. When a structure gets old, they tear it down and build a new one.

Hammers, nails and the possibility of a splinter are all around. Basically, it's a liability nightmare, especially in this economic climate, said Alex Hillenbrand, another ex-employee of the park and fellow member of Defend Adventure Playground. However, for Hillenbrand, the experience is well worth the risk.

"We're really at a point in our society where we want to make everything safe but we're losing our ability to take risks and experience…adventure," he said.

In 2008, Irvine closed Adventure Playground to start construction work on University Community Park. Hillenbrand thought the closure might be temporary and that he'd get his job back. Then two years went by.

This fall, Hillenbrand was talking to a coworker and got surprising news.

"He said 'Hey, look they're going to bulldoze this thing,'" he said. "We started making calls [to the city] and showing up to the park."

Hillenbrand and other former Adventure Playground employees organized a rally Sept. 19, which attracted enthusiastic crowds of kids, parents and grandparents holding signs that read "Stop Bulldozing My Childhood" or "AP is THE Great Park." More than 50 people signed their petition and filled out surveys regarding the park.

Two days later the activists were offered a meeting with city officials.

Gerrard said it took a little talking for the local government to realize that he and Hillenbrand — also in his early 20s — weren't just a couple of young men with a hobby.

"[The city] said they had some guys go in there that said everything was beyond repair," Hillenbrand said. "We weren't going to take their word for it."

Defend Adventure Playground asked for a full report on the integrity of the structures.

About a month later, on Oct. 20, the group mobilized concerned citizens to speak at a Community Services Commission meeting.

"This one elderly couple knew the founders of the Adventure Playground and gave a pretty heartwarming account of how it was like a Tom Sawyer experience where kids could get their hands muddy," Hillenbrand said.

At the meeting the city presented the report. The documents revealed that many of the structures within the playground needed to be torn down or repaired. Specific areas need to be assessed if Adventure Playground is to reopen: site grade, drainage and erosion, and accessibility.

Steve Haubert, principal city planner, organized the report and concluded that when the money is available for construction and the resources to bring it to code, "a public process will be initiated to gather community input on the new Adventure Playground."

A couple weeks later Hillenbrand heard a rumor: The city would appropriate $400,000 for planning the park. He called the city to check. The answer was "yes."

The group will work to come to a compromise, creating a park that is safe but isn't a cookie-cutter experience, advocates said.

Starting in January, the city will hold meetings with Defend Adventure Playground that are open to the public to discuss the planning of the park. The exact dates have not been announced but Defend Adventure Playground will post all details to their blog as soon as they know.

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