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McLean Central Park playground upgrade nears funding goal with approved grant

An updated rendering of the planned McLean Central Park playground renovation (via FCPA/YouTube)

McLean got a step closer this week to realizing its wish for a new, improved and more inclusive playground at McLean Central Park (1468 Dolley Madison Blvd).

The Fairfax County Park Authority Board approved a $20,000 Mastenbrook Grant Wednesday (Oct. 25) to help fund the project, which has significantly expanded in scope thanks to the advocacy and fundraising efforts of local parents.

The grant brings the total budget up to $442,609 when combined with $246,670 in community donations and $175,939 in previously allocated FCPA funds.

While supportive of this particular renovation, some board members worried that relying on community fundraising to enhance capital projects might create disparities in the quality of park facilities in different parts of the county.

“I fully expect and hope we do approve this tonight, but we still have the question of equity for this kind of thing and this community’s ability to raise this kind of money to build this world-class facility where that’s just not possible in some other places,” Mount Vernon District board member Linwood Gorham said, referencing the $1.5 million conversion of Holladay Field that utilized $725,000 in private contributions.

FCPA staff said they will look at potential policy changes as part of the Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Access (PROSA) Strategy that the board endorsed on Sept. 27. The plan’s goals include consideration of racial and socioeconomic equity when prioritizing projects and services.

Board members emphasized that “nobody did anything wrong with this one,” but they want every community to have access to the level of facilities found in McLean.

“That really should be the standard,” FCPA Director Jai Cole said. “Instead of saying, ‘Why do they get more,’ how do we make sure this is the standard everywhere that we’re going, that we have the means and opportunity to put in a $400,000 playground in parks that are so centrally located like this? It’s a big conversation.”

Ron Kendall, who represents the Mason District, noted that more elaborate facilities also tend to require more extensive and costly maintenance.

“The bigger we build it, the more it’s going to cost for us to keep it in the condition they expect it to be in in that community,” he said. “That is another hurdle that we haven’t discussed much.”

Following a master plan approved in 2013, the park authority acquired $2.2 million from a 2020 parks bond to redevelop the 28-acre McLean Central Park, but that budget only had enough funds to upgrade the school-aged playground, which was installed in 1988 and scheduled to be replaced.

When the FCPA revisited the master plan in 2021, a group of moms urged staff to also renovate the tot lot and relocate the school-aged playground so the two facilites are combined, making it easier for families with kids of different ages to keep an eye on them at the same time.

Organizing as the McLean Central Playground Team (MCPT), the parents agreed to raise the $400,000 they estimate is needed to fund their vision, which also includes accessible equipment similar to the facility at Clemyjontri Park.

“The new playground equipment will feature elements that support sensory play, adaptive tandem swings and other design features that promote connections and accessibility for all ages and abilities,” the FCPA said in a press release.

The MCPT’s fundraising efforts have progressed since it applied for the Mastenbrook Grant, which provides matching funds of up to $20,000 to volunteers for park projects. The team says it has reached $310,000, including the grant and a $50,000 contribution from the McLean Community Center.

The $90,000 gap has to be closed by the end of December. The park authority intends to start construction on the new playground next year so it can be completed in the winter of 2024 to 2025.

The available funds cover all the playground equipment, along with fencing for the tot lot and a seating wall for the school-aged playground, but the MCPT also hopes to get poured-in-place rubber surfacing, a cost not included in the grant application.

“We have seen an incredible response from individuals within the community, as well as local businesses, during this process,” MPCT member Jenny Gregory said. “We still need help to reach our goal, but we are confident that McLean will rally and help raise the remaining funds by the deadline.”