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McLean Playground A Swinging Success
Mobbed Park Designed for Disabled Scrambles to Ease Parking Shortage

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

By the hundreds every day, parents and children are flocking to Clemyjontri, the McLean playground with the odd name that has become one gi-normous hit since opening last month.

In its first 25 days of operation, the playground has drawn 12,000 visitors -- an average of 475 a day.

At two acres, this field of dreams is 10 times bigger than the typical Fairfax County playground and millions of dollars more expensive. Yet for those who have visited it, the crowds -- the 81-space parking lot is overwhelmed -- are a small price to pay for the delights of the spacious facility built on a $900,000 rubberized carpet as soft as a putting green.

Designed for disabled and able-bodied children, the park (pronounced Clem-mee-JOHN-tree) sprawls with brightly colored equipment. More than 20 pieces are innovations, including climbable rainbow arches, a wheelchair-accessible maze and a "helicopter" with ramps, allowing children with physical disabilities to fly into the imaginary skies with more able-bodied companions.

"It's the talk of the town," McLean mom Eve Edwards, 36, said as she waited in the carousel line with her daughters, 4 and 6. "Everyone has been raving about it."

With competing interests, including school renovations and highway widening, it is rare that local governments build new playgrounds, particularly ones this size. But the degree of Clemyjontri's popularity has still surprised county officials, who knew the facility would have to compete with video games and an overscheduled culture of sports teams and taekwondo classes.

"We're victims of our own success," said Supervisor Joan M. DuBois (R-Dranesville), whose district includes the playground.

The playground is attracting families from as far away as Delaware. Through e-mail and neighborhood Web sites, they are spreading the word about Clemyjontri.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has arranged for overflow parking at another park down the street. But for a parent piloting a stroller loaded with baby and toddler, it's a 15-minute trudge from the overflow lot to the playground.

On especially busy days, the narrow shoulders of Georgetown Pike turn into a parking lot. More than 60 sport-utility vehicles and minivans lined both sides of the road on a recent balmy day. One mother hauled a double stroller out of the back of her SUV. Hugging the side of her car as cars swept by just a few feet away, she eased two children out of the back seat.

"Hold on!" she yelled at the kids.

To halt the dangerous practice, the Virginia Department of Transportation agreed last week to install "no parking" signs along the shoulders, but county officials acknowledge that those will only make the parking crunch worse.

The playground, called Clemy for short, is the brainchild of Adele Lebowitz, who donated her 18-acre McLean estate to the county in 2000 with the proviso that it build a park with access for disabled children.

Developers figure the land would have been worth as much as $30 million, but Lebowitz handed it over to Fairfax for $1. Lebowitz, a widow, lives in her three-story home at the edge of Clemyjontri (the name melds the first names of her four children). "I see the kids coming and going and running around and having a good time, and that's great," she said.

Park Authority-issued bonds paid for most of the playground's construction. A group of private supporters, Friends of Clemyjontri, kicked in $680,000. The playground is the first phase of the project, to be followed by trails, a gazebo and a privately funded sculpture garden.

So busy has it been that the Park Authority recently pleaded with visitors to come in the early morning and late afternoon, when the crowds are smaller.

"People need to realize that if the parking lots are full, they need to think about maybe coming back during a less peak time," said Park Authority spokeswoman Judy Pederson. "We're very concerned from a safety perspective."

The park's popularity is a mixed blessing for disabled children and their parents -- and some of the park's neighbors.

Some lament that disabled kids have to wait for the handicapped-accessible equipment -- such as double-size swings with handlebars -- when able-bodied children take them over. And some mentally disabled children don't understand why they have to wait in long lines to ride the carousel.

Megan O'Boyle, 39, of Arlington said she was resentful of the hordes of able-bodied children when she first brought her 6-year-old daughter, Shannon, who is autistic. "But then I decided they're just kids being kids." And perhaps by playing side by side with disabled children, O'Boyle said, abled-bodied children will learn "a little compassion along the way."

While agreeing that the playground is an asset to the community, some neighbors complain that the thick traffic and parked cars are an inconvenience -- even a danger.

"We're tearing our hair out here," said Bronwen Kaye, who lives in a nearby cul-de-sac overrun by cars. The neighborhood recently ordered $500 "no parking" signs for the entrance.

Along with overflowing parking lots, though, overly full bladders have become an urgent issue. After closing the playground's restrooms for the winter, the county hastily reopened them last week after reports that adults and children were urinating among the trees.

For many families, it is the park's whimsical features that keep drawing them back.

At one spot, a mom and her young son crouched down at a three-foot-tall yellow and blue recorder, which plays back voices along with funny sound effects.

"Happy birthday," said the mom.

"Happy birthday," it echoed back. Then it yodeled.

Such features are needed to draw in today's wired- and dialed-in kids, said Jay Beckworth, a California playground designer considered the father of the modern playground. Playgrounds these days, he said, must be multilayered and "nonlinear" to compete with multiple-level video games and the Internet.

After three trips to the park, Catie Brooks, 9, of Arlington has yet to discover the depth of its treasures.

"You can go 20 times and still not find it all," she said.

Embedded in most of the equipment are learning games involving geography, time zones, maps and clocks. There are pictures for dyslexic children and patterns for color-blind ones. The educational aspect is a leveler for children of various abilities, said Grace Fielder, a Columbia landscape architect who designed Clemyjontri.

"It allows a child who's got an incredibly sharp mind who perhaps has physical limitations to be smarter, quicker than the child who has no physical limitations."

Because of the size of the playground and the crowds, parents are watching one another's backs.

"Oh my God, it's crazy. You almost need a beeper," said Michelle Link, 34, who came with a friend, Jackie Ware, 39, and their children from Arlington.

At that moment, a tense Ware speed-walked past Link.

"All right, I'm looking for Kiersten," she snapped.

Link spun around and pointed: "She's right there."

Even when the late-fall darkness descends, the crowds stay.

At 5:20 one recent afternoon, before the carousel closed for the season, children were still lining up to ride. Looking into their hopeful faces, park employee Mark Palmer couldn't bring himself to wave them away.

As the painted horses slowed to a standstill, a father and son hurried toward them.

"Did you guys just get here?" Palmer asked. They nodded.

Into the line they went.

McLean au pair Martin Stendel showed up with two boys. "Did you get on the carousel?" Palmer asked him.

Stendel shook his head.

"Get in line," Palmer told them.

The organ music swelled up again. "I want everyone to be happy," Palmer said, steeling himself to wave away more people.

In the deepening darkness, the carousel's lights cast a faint glow, and children became dim shadows.

The parking lot was still full.

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