Great Clients Make Great Projects

By Dan Herman

Marina Park—located on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, Calif.—officially opened in December 2016 after more than 10 years in the planning, design, and construction process. The park site and the story leading to opening day dates back to the early 1900s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged lower Newport Bay to create the peninsula and the site for Marina Park. The story is well documented on the city’s website and in the book Bawdy Balboa written by Judge Robert Gardner.


Prior to development of the park, a majority of the site was used as a mobile home park. The site also included three tennis courts, a 3,000-square-foot community center, a 2,000-square-foot Girl Scout facility, and Arenas Park which consisted of a small area with playground equipment. While limited access to the bay and beach was provided, views of the bay from the adjoining community and Balboa Boulevard were completely blocked. The park now consists of 1,200 linear feet of bay beachfront and an approximately 10-acre rectangular parcel located between the bay and Balboa Boulevard. The parcel features a large central green space ringed by a nautically themed playground, a half-court basketball facility, the Girl Scout House on the north side, the Community and Sailing Center, and a marina designed for youth sailing and 43 visiting vessels on the south side. This layout provides over 400 linear feet—longer than a football field—of open space, providing a “window to the bay” and the key elements most desired by the community.

Marina Park has been well received by the community and every weekend finds the community rooms and outdoor spaces filled with events, classes, birthday parties, free play, and picnicking. The residents, parks and community service staff members, and city council all consider the park a resounding success. From an architect’s point of view, the project is successful for many reasons, but the leadership shown by city council, the city manager’s office and public works and parks and community service staff members resulted in the park being really special and why it has become so important to the community. Someone once told me that it takes a great client to produce a great project and Marina Park is certainly testimony to this.

Rabben/Herman design office became involved in the planning and design of the park in 2005 when the community group “Protect Our Parks” approached us to help them prepare a Vision Plan the park. This began a most unusual collaboration between the city, Protect Our Parks, residents, community groups, and our office. Throughout the entire process when faced with challenges from outside entities, the city always opted to choose a solution that was best for the park.

The most significant example of this collaborative approach began when deciding what direction the park would take. The Vision Plan prepared by our office in 2005 was entirely based on survey work and community meetings held by Protect Our Parks with the local neighborhood associations on what is known as “the Peninsula.” The survey results showed a very strong interest in open space, updated facilities for community meetings, and improved facilities for the city’s sailing program. The first plan prepared by our office featured a large lawn area—more than five acres—in the center of the park, flanked on each side by the Girl Scout House on the north and the community center and sailing facilities on the south. The plan was titled “The Window on the Bay” to emphasize the newly opened vista and the dramatic change in the urban fabric that that the park would create. At the same time Protect Our Parks was working with our office, the city’s Harbors Department and Community and Recreation Services Departments were also preparing plans that represented their respective visions for this important open space. After a series of meetings and public workshops, city council had to decide on a direction for the park. They ultimately endorsed the Protect Our Parks Plan and (in my mind) made a very good decision to listen to the desires of the community.

The original Vision Plan aimed to provide much-needed open space, but also to create a sense of place, make the park unique, and physically and visually connect visitors to the beach and the bay. This included:

  • Creating two separate buildings for the community center and sailing center with pedestrian access and view corridor between them to open views to the bay

  • Relocating 40 existing 50-foot tall Washingtonia robusta palm trees in a “fan like” pattern to emphasize the views and Window to the Bay concept

  • Creating a unique playground near the bay so children could play in the sand and at the water’s edge.


Hands Off The Trees
Keeping the community center and sailing center as separate buildings was never seriously challenged during the design process, but relocating the Washingtonia palms was an entirely different matter. As Marina Park is located within the Coastal Zone, The California Coastal Commission (CCC) has jurisdiction and approval over the development of the park. While the CCC endorsed many of aspects of the plan, they objected to the relocation of the palms, as the robusta palm is listed on the invasive species list of California plants, and is no longer allowed to be planted within the coastal zone. The design team felt keeping and relocating the palms was a design element of the park. Not only did the relocated plans emphasize the views and access to the bay, but they were part of the history of the site and told an important story about how the site was reclaimed for park use. When the city received the preliminary CCC staff report recommending approval of the Master Plan, one of the conditions prohibited the relocation of the Washingtonia palms. The city staff members and city council objected to this condition and agreed with the design team that the relocated palms were an important design element. The city could have easily accepted the condition and had the design team chose a different species of tree, but instead chose to appeal the decision and ultimately received approval to relocate the existing palms. The city then committed to temporarily relocating the palms to an on-site nursery during the demolition phase of construction. Approximately 18 months later after the underground utilities were installed and the site re-graded, the 40 palms were relocated to their permanent locations on the site. Today, the palms are a focal element for the park and a key component of the central open lawn area.

Refusing To Slide On Details
The development of the playground and incorporation of the slide is another example of the city taking the extra steps to make the park more interesting and unique. The playground is designed in two sections—one for toddlers and the other for 4- to 8-year-olds. The inspiration for the playground was based on the bay, with blue and sand-colored rubber paving and nautically themed pieces of play equipment that were selected and arranged to encourage imaginative play. A dock structure—representing the two piers that are landmarks on the peninsula—and the slide connecting the roof of the adjacent “lighthouse” restroom building, and the play area are key elements in encouraging children to move around the playground. When we designed the playground, we specified all of the equipment but had a difficult time finding a manufacturer who would supply a slide if it was not attached to one of the platforms that they also manufactured. After extensive searching we found a vendor who would supply the slide, but we needed to make sure that we met all state and local requirements for safety, specifically the fall zones. Working with city staff, we undertook considerable extra work to make sure the slide and surrounding “fall zones” met all of the mandated requirements for cushioning and the railings where the slide attached to the restroom were safe. When the procurement of the slide became difficult, the city could have easily given up on the idea, but they did not. Now the slide is one of the most popular features in the playground and certainly one of the reasons the playground draws large crowds of families every weekend.

Committed To Cohesion
A challenge for clients and designers is deciding how best to spend the budget when designing a project. That is certainly the case in Newport Beach where the community demands cost-efficient government services. From the early beginnings of the project, the city directed the design team to be more creative rather than to use expensive materials to make the park special. Anyone who walks through the park today can see a strong framework to the design, but also the use of basic materials that can withstand the extreme salt environment that are neither elaborate or over-the-top. This includes the major project components such as the Community and Sailing Center roof and wall material, the site paving, and the interior finishes of all of the buildings. One element that the design team was passionate about was the design of the railing that encompasses 850 linear feet of the marina bulkhead and 350 linear feet of the community center second story balcony. The team felt that the rail was visually prominent and visually tied the site and buildings together. The team designed a railing system with posts shaped in a form similar to a full spinnaker sail with a top rail made of Ipe wood and stainless-steel cable rails filling the space between the top rail and the ground. The entire assembly was canted to prevent anyone from climbing on the cables. The rail system was not the least-expensive option studied, but the design team strongly promoted the original design. The city staff and council agreed, and the rail provides a beautiful element and nautical character and visually ties the site and building into a cohesive whole.

Fighting For The Lighthouse
During the design process, the city led by then-Mayor Ed Selich, encouraged the design team to incorporate iconic elements into the design of the park; the lighthouse was one of the main features. Everyone thought this was an important design element to identify the visiting vessel marina that was constructed as part of the park. The city’s development code has a height limitation, but allows exceptions for “architectural elements” upon approval by city council. The architectural team developed a design that was in proportion to the Sailing and Community Center building and was 57 feet tall. The lighthouse tower was sheathed in a green articulated glass and would be internally lit to “glow” in the evening to insure there was no glare to neighboring residents on the peninsula or across the bay on Lido Island. During the Coastal Commission hearings, staff members objected to the lighthouse stating that it would negatively impact the surrounding neighborhoods and violated the city’s development regulations. Faced with accepting this decision of fighting for the tower, the city again made the choice that they thought was right for the park. Our office prepared a series of simulations showing that the tower did not negatively impact any of the surrounding houses, did not cast shadows on any adjoining uses, and did not block anyone’s view. The city attorney prepared a brief outlining the city’s ability to approve architectural elements and after presenting both exhibits to the Coastal Commission, the original finding was appealed. The city prevailed and today the lighthouse marks the park and is an iconic element for the surrounding neighborhood as well as a marker for visiting vessels visiting Newport Bay from as far away as Mexico or the San Juan Islands.

Great clients make great projects. Had the city not been willing to accept the proposal put forth by a citizen group and instead selected one of the internally prepared plans, Marina Park would be completely different today. Sure, the city could have chosen to not fight to keep the palms in the plan or the lighthouse tower, and the basic structure of the park would remain. The same could be said for the slide or the rails, just two examples of hard-but-wise decisions by a dedicated city staff. Together, the years of work and dedication has resulted in a park completely embraced by the community it serves, rich in character with a sense of the history of the site and the Newport peninsula.

Dan Herman is a Principal for Rabben/Herman design office in Newport Beach, Calif. Reach him at