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Moms rally to raise $400,000 for new McLean Central Park playground

The current tot lot at McLean Central Park (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 5:25 p.m.) McLean Central Park is getting a new playground, but the exact design will depend on whether a group of local moms can raise nearly $400,000 by the end of this year.

Ideally, the facility will have a rubberized surface to cushion the ground, tot lot fencing, additional seating and plenty of shiny, modern equipment, including an adaptive tandem swing and other elements accessible to people with disabilities.

But the vision of an inclusive playground reminiscent of the one at Clemyjontri Park exceeds the $279,361 that the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA) has budgeted for the project as part of an overhaul of the 28-acre park at 1468 Dolley Madison Blvd.

To close the funding gap, a group of volunteering parents formed the McLean Central Park Playground Team and launched a community fundraising campaign in early March.

“We were all extremely passionate about making sure that this was an inclusive playground for all different types of abilities and ages,” said Jessica Wu, who joined the team last year. “…Clemyjontri is amazing. It’s a wonderful, wonderful playground and we’re so lucky to have it right in our backyard here, but McLean Central Park, that’s our central park, right? That’s the heart of McLean.”

While the fundraiser is just getting underway, it continues a years-long advocacy effort that began in a McLean Facebook group, when Cara Schantz, a McLean native, expressed disappointment with the playground options for young kids after moving back to the area from Arlington County.

She wasn’t alone in her dissatisfaction, as others chimed in with their own experiences, shaped in part by having more time to take their kids to local parks during the early months of the Covid pandemic, fellow original team member Ang Golder recalls.

Clemyjontri has been lauded for accommodating kids with physical and developmental disabilities, but its uniqueness makes it a regional draw, which can mean crowds, the parents told FFXnow. Many other playgrounds belong to schools, making them off-limits when classes are in session.

When Schantz and Golder learned the park authority was developing a concept for new facilities at McLean Central, they saw an opportunity to advocate for improvements to the existing playground for school-aged kids and tot lot.

Installed in 1998 and 2002, respectively, the playground and tot lot are on opposite ends of the park, inconveniencing families with kids of different ages.

“It makes no sense that the playgrounds are like…two or three blocks apart,” Schantz said.

Renderings of the planned McLean Central Park playground (courtesy Cunningham Recreation for Fairfax County Park Authority)

Initially, the FCPA presented a concept for the park in spring 2021 that left both facilities in their existing locations and replaced the school-aged playground, which is at the end of its useful life, according to spokesperson Benjamin Boxer.

“The tot lot is still safe and operational. It was to be replaced over the next 5 years as needed,” Boxer said. “Through public community meetings and outreach efforts, it became evident that there was strong interest and support in combining both the tot lot and the school age playgrounds in one central location.”

A revised concept shared in March 2022 combined the playgrounds in a roughly 6,300-square-foot area where the tot lot is currently located.

The park authority agreed to let the parents provide input to its contracted designers after they “continued to email them and we continued to ‘spontaneously’ run into them at the playground,” Wu said.

However, the new central playground will cost approximately $675,000 — more than the park authority anticipated when it obtained $2.2 million in bond funding for the McLean Central redevelopment, which also calls for an amphitheater, pickleball courts and new walkways.

With the county covering 41% of the playground costs, the moms have committed to funding the remaining $395,679, including all the new tot lot surfacing and equipment.

So far, the group has raised about $15,000, according to Lacey Obry, who created Instagram and Facebook profiles for the team as well as a website where people can donate directly to the Fairfax County Park Foundation.

A big chunk of that donation came from the McLean Moms Club, whose president Jenny Gregory is part of the team, but there have also been contributions from community members and local businesses. The group has partnered with Kosmo Nail Bar for its first major fundraiser, getting 15% of the proceeds when salon customers mention the playground through Sunday (April 23).

Future events may include a McLean restaurant week in the early summer after schools get out.

Since the donations goes to the park foundation, a nonprofit, Obry notes that they would be eligible for tax write-offs. Large donors can also get their name on a wall or bench.

“It is so important for our families, and even for the people in our community who do not have [young] children, this is for their grandchildren,” Obry said. “This is where people want to spend their whole day in this park. That’s what it should be, and so, I think that it would be so wonderful if they could support this initiative.”

With pickleball lines now on the tennis courts and a trail bridge upgrade completed, the park authority hopes to begin construction on the other components of its McLean Central Park plan later this year or in early 2024, according to Boxer.

If the playground isn’t fully funded by the end of 2023, “the concept will be adapted to fit the provided contributions,” he said.

With playgrounds only coming up for renovation every two decades, the team hopes to avoid their worst-case scenario, where the school-aged playground gets updated but the tot lot stays unchanged, Golder says.

“None of this just sort of happens magically, you know,” she said. “That’s been really eye opening to me, just how much of a process it is even for something like renovating a playground. I will never look at a playground in the same way again, sort of taking it for granted.”

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