Plans for a universally accessible playground featuring a sensory garden and equipment fit for everyone, regardless of their ability, are in the works in Irvine.

And with the help of millions of dollars in recently secured state funding, the project is a step closer to becoming reality.

The playground will go in at Irvine’s 7.9-acre Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park, with plans that call for renovating the existing space with new elements such as swings for children with special needs and wheelchair accessibility throughout the play area.

City officials on Wednesday, July 6, announced that the project got its needed funding thanks to efforts by Assemblywoman Cottie Petri-Norris: $2.8 million in earmarked money from the state budget that is expected to cover the entire cost of the renovations.

Pam Baird, Irvine’s community services director, said the city’s decision to create the accessible playground at that location was deliberate because it will be “perfectly tied” to programs already offered at the park’s Sweet Shade Ability Center, where the city’s Disability Services program is housed.

The center hosts programs such as crafting, dance, gardening and cooking classes, and the renovated park could provide more space for recreational activities catered to people with disabilities.

“This is an enhancement for people of all ages and abilities,” Baird said. “That park is pretty heavily used by individuals with disabilities, so it just makes it that much better.”

The project is “a symbol of the city’s commitment to inclusivity and supporting residents of all abilities,” said Jennifer Kim, chair of the Irvine Residents with Disabilities Advisory Board, in a news release.

It will be the first park in the city aimed at providing elements that level the playing field for people with disabilities, so they can have fun using equipment alongside their peers without special needs. Other “universal playgrounds” have sprung up in Orange County over the years, in cities such as San Clemente, Lake Forest and Tustin.

An outer space theme planned at Irvine’s park “will provide exciting interactive sensory learning,” Petrie-Norris, D-Irvine, said in the release.

And restrooms and adult changing spaces are also part of the design, helping “families and those who need additional caregiving,” Kim said.

“The universal playground will be the first of its kind in this city that has differently abled residents at the center of its design,” she said. “Creating a space where children and adults can play regardless of ability is important.”

Plans for a universally accessible playground at the 7.9-acre Sweet Shade Neighborhood Park are in the works in Irvine. The design calls for renovating the existing space with new elements such as swings for children with special needs and wheelchair accessibility throughout the play area. (Courtesy of the city of Irvine.)

Some existing features of the playground will remain, including some shade structures, picnic tables and a jungle gym meant for kids ages 5 to 12. New playground equipment for kids 2 to 12 years old will be added adjacent to the current jungle gym, and the space will be resurfaced with a rubber material, conceptual plans show.

Mayor Farrah Khan said the playground will be “a testament to our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for children and families who call Irvine home.”

The playground’s conceptual plan has been approved by the city’s Community Services Commission, and a final design is expected to be finished this fall, Baird said. After a construction contract is awarded – which is planned to happen late this year or early next – construction is expected to take about a year, putting the completion date likely in 2024.

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