El Niño winter could delay renovation of Dolores Park, other projects

If the El Niño forecast for this winter brings as much rain as expected, completion of Recreation and Park Department projects, like the one Dolores Park, above, could be delayed. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The whopping El Niño forecast this winter may bring some much-needed rain to parched California, but the weather could also delay a number of long-awaited projects in San Francisco — including the renovation of Dolores Park.

Amid a yearslong and $20 million makeover, the popular park in the Mission district has made headlines this year due to its soaring number of visitors and, subsequently, trash; vandalism that purportedly involved hot-wiring a construction vehicle and doing doughnuts on a newly sodded field; and the milestone halfway point in its renovation reached earlier this summer.

The north half of Dolores Park, closed to the public since March 2014, opened June 18 just before the south half shut down for repairs. Improvements to the north half included new restrooms, renovated tennis and basketball courts and a new multiuse court.

Better irrigation systems, improved off-leash dog play areas, new bikeways and new pathways were also added to the north side and will be improved on the south side as well, which closed for its repairs June 19. The Helen Diller Playground on the south side of the park remains open during construction.

But with news that “a significant and strengthening El Niño” could hit drought-stricken California in the coming months, according to an Aug. 13 statement from the National Weather Service, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department is evaluating the potential impacts of harsh winter storms on nearly two dozen projects, including Dolores Park.

“All of our construction projects can be delayed due to unforeseen conditions, including weather,” said Connie Chan, a spokeswoman with Rec and Park. “How much of a delay … really depends on the construction phase.”

Pouring concrete, grading gravel and installing sheetrock are among the ways construction can be affected by rain, Chan explained.

It remains unknown exactly how much rain could drench The City this winter, but indications are that the El Niño will rival the storms of the 1982-83 and 1997-98 winters, the two worst on record in the Bay Area since weather officials began tracking El Niño storms in 1950.

“The current strength is borderline-strong. The forecast is for it to continue to strengthen into the strong category into winter time,” said Steve Anderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

In other words, weather officials are not sure how much rain will fall, but the chance of a wet winter in San Francisco will likely increase.

“Right now we can just forecast that there is a greater chance of above-normal rainfall,” Anderson said.

However, should strong storms hit The City, Dolores Park may actually be among the least impacted projects because its construction will be nearly done by then, Chan said. The second half of the park is expected to reopen in early 2016, meaning much of the renovation will most likely be complete before winter.

Projects managed by Rec and Park that could be most impacted by rain include various parks that are set to begin construction this fall, including Mountain Lake, Gilman, South Park and 17th and Folsom playgrounds.

North Beach’s Joe DiMaggio Playground, a vision anticipated in the neighborhood for more than a decade, could be impacted too, though the chance is slimmer because construction is already underway. The play structure and bocce ball court are not yet finished, and a large side of the playground still needs to be resurfaced as well.

The completion of the highly contentious Beach Chalet soccer fields in Golden Gate Park, an effort blocked by opponents for years but on track to open in November, also faces a slight chance of delays from rain, as does the installation of a plane structure at Larsen Playground.

Rec and Park officials are prepared for delays due to weather with a contingency budget, which allows for more than two weeks of rain, and it’s unlikely that rain delays will trigger any financial impacts, Chan said.

“In this case, we definitely have prepared for all of our construction projects … in case of rain,” she said. “Anybody undergoing any type of construction projects knows that the timeline is subject to change.”

Meanwhile, nearly half of California remains in the most severe federal drought classification, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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