Heisler Park Amphitheater: A Dream Come True

The invariable mark of a dream is to see it come true.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

“It’s actually being built. It’s almost done,” I sputtered with childlike glee, as Emma and I walked in Heisler Park near the old shuffleboard area.

Where once there was merely a crumbling slope, a new curved amphitheater with concrete benches rose up to terraced grassy areas. At the base of the seating, two towering palm trees flank a small concrete stage. East of the stage, the beloved “Breeching Whale” statue of artist Jon Seeman has at last found its home.

It has been 14 years since the Laguna Beach City Council approved a 50-year master plan to preserve and renovate Heisler Park, a project that has been developed in stages as funds became available. The final phase, which included the stairway renovation at Diver’s Cove and the Monument Point area, will conclude an $8-million renovation of the highly used bluff-top park, provided by $4.5 million in state grants and $3.5 million from city funds.

The final $2.4 million phase involved three areas of the park: the Diver’s Cove stairway at the northern end of the park, the Monument Point area surrounding the lawn bowling courts in the central portion of the park, and the north Main Beach area south of the gazebo.

The intention of the project from the beginning was to “preserve, renovate and honor Heisler Park” in a manner that would preserve the natural topography, it’s “eclectic, ocean-emphasis character,” and enhance its accessibility. A quick perusal and it becomes obvious that the intention has been fulfilled.

Concrete pathways have replaced aging and uneven asphalt. Planter walls in a variety of stone treatment have shored up old planting areas. Aged vegetation has been replaced with a combination of drought tolerant and native plantings. New handrails safeguard the cliff fronts and ease the transitions down the stairs from park to beach. Everything feels fresh, and the park, which has always been a showcase for Laguna, has taken on a new shimmer.

Several years ago I worked with Wade Brown, the city’s project manager for the park, along with city committee and commission chairs in scoping meetings. At the time, I was chairwoman of the Open Space Committee (repurposed as the current Environmental Committee) and was thrilled to be involved in proposing ideas for the park’s renovations.

We met one cool morning near the shuffleboard courts and walked the length of the park. We spoke at length about aging bathrooms, a need for beach showers, replacement of unstable walking paths, children-sized tables, more picnic areas, better access for handicapped, and ways to effectively utilize spaces for the needs of our diverse community.

The area around the shuffleboard court was problematic. While the courts had gone unused for more than a decade, there was dissent in their destruction, with strong city factions wanting to hold on to a piece of the park’s history. The junior lifeguard program had also laid claim to part of the area for staging and storage.

The slopes that led to the expansive lawn area hadn’t been replanted in a generation, and the entire space — a prime vista location — was under-utilized. It was on this bluff top that we envisioned tables with street access for those unable to navigate stairways or sloping paths, and we spoke about ways to recycle the shuffleboard decks as homage to their history.

As we continued to peruse the area, I pondered the area, my mind grabbed hold of an idea.

“Why not take that small slope and build in some kind of seating area. Something that looks toward the sea and could maybe be a venue for afternoon music?”

The group grabbed the proposition and immediately expanded the concept. How about a small stage that the dance team could use for performances? How about providing a means to stretch a canvas screen between the two palms for art flicks? A stage could be used for afternoon music in the park, lectures on history and/or art, or even an outdoor venue for city-related speeches.

Brown duly noted all of our ideas on his yellow pad and told us that while there were some great ideas, budget would determine what ultimately could be built and installed. Anything that we had suggested would be pushed into the last phase of the renovations. That was five years ago.

I hadn’t walked in the park for a while, and when I had, the demolition and fencing had cordoned off the large lawn area. When Emma and I circumvented the construction via the sidewalk route on Cliff Drive, I could see the curved seating faced with stamped concrete, the newly planted palms that flanked the stage, and the grassy seating areas terraced up the slope.

My heart did one of those little flips.

Dreams do come true.

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