Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerA $6.3 million bond is funding a facelift for the Joe DiMaggio Playground in North Beach. Among the improvements are moving the play area and more basketball hoops.

New vision for Joe DiMaggio Playground in North Beach close to being realized

A decade and a half ago, two mothers whose families live in densely populated North Beach started a project to redo the disjointed children's play area at the Joe DiMaggio Playground, which was originally designed more like a concrete parking lot.

From there, the list of projects piled up.

Slowly but surely, funding streamed in for various renovations of the playground at the corner of Mason and Lombard streets courtesy of several bonds: one took care of renovations to the pool, another covered a new North Beach Branch Library building adjacent to the playground, and the other allocated $6.3 million for a complete reorganization of the play area to the center, new tennis courts, more basketball hoops and more than 50 trees.

Construction is slated to begin in January and the Recreation and Park Department is giving the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground — founded by the two mothers, Lizzy Hirsch and Mary Jo Spear — until the end of that month to raise $498,000 for playground features that the bond funds could not cover. Those details include mature instead of small trees, climbing boulders, a tiled fish sculpture reflective of North Beach's history as a fisherman's neighborhood, a nonchain-link fence and tinted instead of gray concrete.

“You'd think something like tinted concrete wouldn't make a difference,” said Julie Christensen, 61, a Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground steering committee member. “But it just makes the playground feel more like an escape from the urban environment instead of just a continuation of the street outside.”

The playground construction is expected to be completed by fall 2015.

“We're very blessed to have a very active and supportive Friends group,” said Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg. The community group is comprised of about 30 North Beach residents, most of whom have children and decided to stay in San Francisco instead of following the trend of moving to the suburbs after starting a family.

North Beach was originally an Italian immigrant neighborhood but changed as that generation aged.

Before Sharone Mendes had two daughters of her own, she had no idea how many families lived in North Beach. Five years ago, she opened Carmel Blue, a baby boutique and education center on Grant Avenue, because there was no store like it in the neighborhood. She started with weekly parent community meetings, but now holds two or three a week.

“Apartments for the most part in this part of The City are really small,” said Mendes, 47. “For families to be able to take their kids out to get some fresh air and meet the rest of the community becomes a lifeline.”

The Joe DiMaggio Playground is North Beach's only haven for families, as recreational activities are prohibited in Washington Square. The California State Parks recommends at least 3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, but North Beach has 0.43 acres.

To raise the nearly half-a-million dollars for the “icing on the cake,” as Christensen calls the extra playground features, the Friends of Joe DiMaggio Playground is partnering with other neighborhood groups to sell tiles for a wall encircling the playground at $300 and $500. There's also a $65-a-head fundraising event at Bimbo's 365 Club in North Beach on Jan. 14.

“When the playground finally gets built, everything will talk to each other and become one large civic space,” said Hirsch, 52, who also designed the playground for the Department of Public Works. “When you go from the playground to the library to the pool, everything interrelates finally, and it becomes a great place to raise kids and grow old.”

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