City Council approved a contract with Leathers and Associates for the “design and construction administration of the Penny Park Renovation Project” at its Oct. 13 meeting, continuing a process that began with design input from local elementary school students in March of this year and has been in the City pipeline for about three years. Penny Park, unique in the City in its all-wood construction, is over 20 years old.
Several residents protested the process, claimed a lack of notice and decried a perceived lack of transparency. The RoundTable reported on the March 27 design meeting in its April 9 issue, and Penny Park has been a topic in Second and Fourth Ward meetings over the past year.
“The proposal for Penny Park is by no means new to us,” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, noting the fact that it has been on the City’s capital improvement roster for several years. “It’s Penny Park’s turn,” she said. But with a nod to the protesters she added, “There’s probably more opportunity to tinker with the design.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, agreed. “With park renovations to our ward,” she said, “there are changes made right up to the last minute. I believe the community is supportive of renovations.”
Both aldermen and residents spoke of a deep affection for Penny Park, tucked between Dodge and Asbury avenues on Lake Street. It was built and largely paid for by the community – including pennies collected by Dewey and other school students. It is relatively large for a park not on the lakefront and without athletic fields, and it is constructed of timber, now considered less safe than plastic for children. Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward includes the park, said the process for designing Penny Park in 2013 and 2014 “is the exact same process we went through 20 years ago.”
Lauren Brodski, one to the protesters who pointed to a “preservepennypark” website, acknowledged the process and thanked the City “for making this a community process.” But she pointed to several elements of the preliminary design that she found lacking, such as the removal of a “ticket booth” structure near the front of the park.
Ms. Brodski also questioned the reasoning behind replacing the park in the first place. Once reason, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, was flawed because the Park was constructed before the ADA became fully implemented. Penny Park is in effect grandfathered in and need not meet the requirements of the ADA to be compliant, she said.
Others disagreed, saying the City should make all parks accessible. Patrick Hughes “applaud[ed] the renovations,” saying other City parks and schools, like Orrington School, were inaccessible to grandparents who wished to take their grandchildren to a park and watch them play.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, a supporter of park renovations, nevertheless agreed that the City’s material was confusing as to the design aspect. “The design – is it done?” he asked. “Some say ‘Yes,’ others, ‘No.’” As a threshold matter, he continued, “Is the design already done? I assume it’s not.”
“The design is not complete,” answered Suzette Robinson, the City’s Director of Public Works. Leathers, in conjunction with school kids and Cherry Preschool and Dewey Elementary School, created a preliminary design concept, she said. “What they have designed is about $300,000,” she added. Because the project’s budget is $500,000, “there’s money in the budget for additional amenities.”
Removing a beloved, all-wood park, even when the replacement could be even better, has stirred some community emotions. Change often does. The Leathers company, said Ms. Robinson, “no longer builds wood structures,” adding to the hesitation of some.
But not all. “Just very quickly,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. “You don’t want to use pressure treated timber for playground equipment any more… because of the chemicals” used in the treatment process.
The measure passed out of committee 5-0, and unanimously at City Council. The community will have an opportunity for more input in the design process, but the Penny Park Project is finally going forward.