On a beautiful evening in September, Salem Hospital held a grand opening of a new playground on the northeast corner of Mission and Church Streets. It was a festive occasion before dignitaries,  employees, families, friends and a batch of young children squealing as they used the novel and educational playground equipment – not see-saws, rather we-saws; not monkey bars, but dome bars –all while gobbling ice cream, cupcakes and other goodies.

      If the opening of the new playground, named “Let’s ALL Play Place,” went smoothly… that was not always the case. As they say over in Building D – the Birth Center – it was a difficult delivery.

      In 2009 the Oregon legislature closed the Oregon School for the Blind (OSB) located on 8.4 acres south of Salem Hospital and Pringle Park. The State, after a year or so, sold the property to the Hospital for approximately $6 million. The Hospital cleared the property except for Howard Hall, a designated Salem landmark, and prepared to develop the site.

      In April 2014, after one failed attempt in 2011, The Hospital filed a request before the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) to demolish Howard Hall, a graceful brick building dating to 1927 but encumbered by a clunky modern addition. In May the Hospital filed a second case, a Class 3 Site Plan Review for the development of the property including the construction of a rehab center, a hospitality house and extensive parking, as well as a Variance to remove nine significant White Oaks. The Hospital pursued the two cases, both of which attracted strong opposition, simultaneously for the next 18 months. They produced a flurry of litigation, a great deal of consternation on the part of the Hospital and the City, and heart-felt anger and frustration for the neighbors, members of the blind community, and other opponents of the project.

      After an initial loss before the HLC, the Hospital eventually won the right to demolish Howard Hall based on its promise to provide on the building’s site a playground and garden commemorating OSB’s long use of the property. The Site Plan Review, after approval with conditions by the Hearings Officer, was appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) by South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN) and others and resulted in a substantial reduction in parking and preservation of the significant trees. The Hospital appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals which affirmed LUBA. It is unusual for a neighborhood association to challenge a major project like this in court, rarer still to win.

      Since the litigation ended the Hospital has developed the 8.4 acre parcel. The overall project cost $22 million and includes a large unremarkable parking area, the Rehab Building, the guesthouse and the playground and commemorative garden built on a 45,600 squarefoot parcel. The buildings were never a matter of contention. The parking in the development is limited to 189 spaces as specified in the SCAN case. The significant oaks have also been preserved but other trees were removed. The west side of the property, however, does have an arboreal appeal especially since the large line of Sweetgums in the parking strip along Church Street have been preserved.

       The playground is in many ways the most notable part of the project.  It features 13 interpretive panels, enhanced by brail additions, presenting the history and role of OSB in Oregon history. There is an entry arch made of bricks from Howard Hall. The equipment is top-of-the-line. The whole playground cost $2 million, of which $1.4 million was paid by the Salem Hospital Foundation. A number of large donors are acknowledged on a donor board and by various signs. The playground is used by both hospital patients and the general public.

      But what of the opponents? How do they feel? Those who advocated the preservation of Howard Hall are predictably disappointed. The playground, even with the interpretive signs, is not the same as a rehabilitated building; but most are philosophical. “The Hall is gone, the park is here. We have to accept that,” says Patrick Schwab, one of the litigants. Nonetheless, he intends to monitor the park to see that the signage and other remembrances of OSB are maintained. He is not thrilled with the name and thinks the hospital could do better for what is supposed to be a commemorative garden.

      Jon Christenson, one of the litigants and SCAN’s Parks and Gardens Chair, says “The playground has been very well received. Additional steps to consider would include improved cover for year-round use and curtailing the intrusion of the night lights into adjacent homes.”

      Let’s ALL Play Place is open daily from 8:00 am to dusk. It is free. Restrooms are in the adjacent hospital buildings. There is on-site and street side parking and a Cherriot stop is on Church Street near the south entrance.