It wasn’t an ideal day to play in the park: Fog clapped a gray lid over the sky, and a cold mist made the playground equipment wet and slick.
Even so, more than 200 people came to Valley Oak Park in Sacramento’s North Natomas neighborhood on Saturday, because it was the park’s official first day in operation. There were speeches and snacks. A red ribbon was snipped with gold scissors while cameras clicked. More importantly, children swarmed over the park as if it has always been there.
The park on Mabry Drive is one of three new community parks being inaugurated in less than a month in North Natomas. These are momentous events in this community, a vast suburban region north of downtown Sacramento where virtually all other construction has been halted for years by a development moratorium.
“It feels like the community’s starting to grow again,” said Valerie Pruitt, a North Natomas resident who attended the event with many of her neighbors.
Once Sacramento’s fastest-growing region, construction has been stalled in Natomas since December 2008. The Federal Emergency Management Agency decreed that new buildings must be elevated above potential floods, producing a de facto development moratorium. The ruling was prompted by structural concerns about levees protecting the Natomas basin from the Sacramento and American rivers and several tributary creeks.
New parks are not subject to the moratorium – only their bathrooms. Which is why you won’t find a bathroom at Valley Oak Park.
That did not diminish the joy among residents on Saturday, as children scrambled over the new play structures and put the swings and slides to the test.
“All of my friends are just loving it, and they like to go and play,” said 7-year-old Roxanne London. “Me and my best friend already did a play date.”
This part of Natomas has money to build new parks because developers paid fees for park construction before the building moratorium took effect. The recession hit around the same time, and city leaders wouldn’t build new parks without money in the budget to maintain them afterward.
But it turned out the city already had that funding, too. When Angelique Ashby was elected City Council representative for the area in 2010, she reminded her fellow council members that North Natomas residents pay a special fee for park maintenance through their property taxes and that none of that money was being spent. She also organized a volunteer corps of teenagers to help maintain parks every weekend.
“I guess the mom in me wanted to make sure every kid in Natomas got the park that was promised to them,” Ashby said.
In the past four years, all 52 parks in North Natomas – which make up about one-fifth of all the parks in Sacramento – have received significant upgrades. Two were completely rebuilt. And three entirely new parks have been constructed. In addition to Valley Oak, Dogwood Park was unveiled on Feb. 14, and Wild Rose Park will be inaugurated March 7.
Another new project involves building a venue for a regular farmers market at North Natomas Regional Park, along with more parking. That work is underway and expected to be finished this summer.
“I think we have built more parks in North Natomas than in all of the rest of the city combined in the last four years,” Jim Combs, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, said during the inauguration of Valley Oak Park. “This park has about every amenity that a park could have in the city.”
In addition to two elaborate play structures – one for children older than 5, one for younger kids – the 9-acre park has two tennis courts, a basketball court, swings, picnic tables, a covered group picnic area with barbecue, two dog parks (big dogs and small dogs), exercise stations for adults along a walking path and several large lawn areas. The park cost about $2 million to build.
The park’s distinguishing feature is a 15-foot-tall figure of a horse, which sprays a fine mist to keep visitors cool on hot days. As a result, many of the children have already decided to call this “horse park.”
Another unique amenity is a Bankshot Basketball Court, which features numerous baskets at different heights with oddly shaped backboards. The court, said to be the only one of its kind on the West Coast, is handicapped-accessible and designed so children of any age and ability can play together.
The building moratorium in Natomas is expected to end this summer – thanks to a vote in Congress last year that allows the remaining levee construction to begin, and ongoing negotiations between the city and FEMA. When that happens, Ashby said, some North Natomas residents will see restrooms appear in their new neighborhood parks.
“Once that moratorium is lifted, we’ll come back and ask them if they want a bathroom, and if they do, we’ll build it for them,” Ashby said.
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.