A bathroom at Penny Park was one of the few non-contentious items discussed at the Dec. 11 meeting about the renovation of the popular community-built park on Lake Street between Florence and Ashland avenues.

The park, funded privately – in part by coins collected by school children – then dedicated to the City, lies in the Second Ward. The City says it is the most-used park, and many people from all over Evanston feel like it is “their park,” they say, either because they helped build it 24 years ago or because their children or grandchildren love it.

While the City regularly maintains its parks, said Assistant City Manager Joe McRae, renovation of parks is on a roughly 20-year cycle. By that count, Penny Park’s renovation is overdue.

During a “design day” last March, representatives of Leathers & Associates, the company that helped design the original Penny Park, asked children at Dewey Elementary School and Cherry Preschool what they like about the park and what else they would like to see there. That same evening, the Leathers representatives presented a draft redesign of the park, based, they said, on the day’s input.

Some who attended that March 27 meeting appeared comfortable with the redesign, but even then several objected to it, as well as to any redesign whatsoever. Since then, discontent appears to have grown in intensity.

Penny Park neighbor Lauren Barski has created a website, PreservePennyPark.org. A letter/petition to City Council requesting that the wood structure be rehabbed rather than replaced has more than 1,700 signatures.

At issue seem to be both the process – which, some have said, has been mishandled or even “hijacked” – and the outcome, which some say is unacceptable in composition, material and design and destroys the character of the park.

No one objected to the features that would make the park ADA-compliant.

Some Object to the Process

The Parks and Recreation Board was not involved in the process of shepherding the renovations or holding public meetings for community input.

“We’re there to be an entry point for anyone who has any concerns about a park,” Parks and Recreation Board member Amina DiMarco told the RoundTable. “Typically when a park is set for redesign, there are public meetings … and postcards are sent out to the neighbors. This has been a much greater outreach.”

Ms. DiMarco added the Parks and Recreation Board is advisory only. As with other volunteer boards and commissions in the City, City Council has the ultimate authority.

“Our role will be defined by Council,” Dan Stein, Parks and Recreation Board president, told the RoundTable. “I think Peter Braithwaite wants what’s best [for the community]. What’s lacking is process.”

 Although Penny Park renovations had been discussed at several meetings, the only meeting for community input was the one held on March 27, at the end of Design Day – after Leathers had already come up with its proposal.

Kyle Cundy of Leathers defended the process by saying, “We believe the community can help design the park. We went to Dewey and Cherry and asked the kids, ‘What do you love about the park? What new [things] would you like to see?’”

Some residents asked why the park had to be replaced rather than rehabbed.

Ms. Barski said, “Other cities don’t start from a point of demolition [of a park].” A petition on her website has “three major themes,” she said: “This is a community that values preservation … that values the kind of play that Penny Park encourages … and that is concerned with the high cost of replacing the park.”

Most Reject the “Plastic, Cookie-Cutter” Option

The hour before the meeting began, residents were invited to look at the design presented by Leathers, which they said represented input from the community on Design Day, is ADA-compliant and incorporates other standards and guidelines for modern playgrounds.

Ms. Cundy, along with Mr. McRae and Ald. Braithwaite, explained reasons for some of the changes: The new material would be a plastic composite, in shades of brown and tan, because treated wood can is no longer considered the most desirable material. This plastic composite meets American Society for Testing and Materials standards and has a “99-year life and a 50-year warranty,” Ms. Cundy said. The many towers and parapets of the original park are gone, because “visibility” is a new byword. The many places where children could momentarily disappear behind a wall or over a bridge would not be part of the new park.

Ms. Cundy hinted that some might take advantage of such places for unacceptable activities. “I understand that kids love the nooks, but think about the neighborhood. What do we find the next morning?” she said.

No one from the City picked up on the hint, and none of the Penny Park neighbors at the meeting echoed that concern.

People want to be able to see their children as much as possible. Because of a new guideline, the new design divides the park into two separate play areas, one for 2-5-year-olds; the other for older children,

“There are specific guidelines for 2-5-year-olds and 5-12-year-olds,” Ms. Cundy said, adding that the City had requested a separate area for 2-5-year-olds. “Of course,” she said, the younger children can play in the older play lot.  She suggested that the proposed fence that divides the park could be replaced with back-to-back benches. She also said Leathers likes to have its parks reflect an historical or important part of the community. A center tower in the new Penny Park would evoke the Gross Pointe lighthouse.

“This is not meant to be a final design. It is a working drawing. … We give the drawing back to the community. They come up with consensus. Someone has to make a design as to what the priorities are,” she said. Then the community can weigh in on “what they’d like to see added, what’s not important,” and the like, she said.

Many at the meeting expressed disappointment that Leathers had abandoned the original design of the park and said they felt the new design looked “too plastic” and it “looks like stuff that everyone else has.”

Ms. Cundy said, “We weren’t asked to re-create the existing structure. We weren’t asked to keep the park.”

Is a Rehab Possible?

“I think when it comes to opinion,” said Penny Park neighbor Michael Bernard,” we will never have consensus on what Penny Park should be. I think we should stay open to proposed changes. … I think about that divide [the fence] that it is the most contentious [element]. It should be immediately scrubbed.”

Kelley Elwood asked, “Are there pieces of the park that could be rehabbed?” Ms. Cundy said often in “second generation” parks “what some people do is choose a piece and we refurbish it” as a memento of the former park.

Mr. Stein told the RoundTable, “We’re so happy that there is spending on parks. Our parks needed additional funding and we’re finally getting it. We’re getting $500,000, and we shouldn’t be bickering,” he added.

Next Steps

Ald. Braithwaite said, “We will have to come up with a couple of different [design] options.” He outlined some of the next steps: the establishment of a steering committee, the convening of other public meetings, design development over the coming winter, and construction next summer. He also said that the community would have to raise funds to pay for a bathroom and a pavilion at the park.

Mr. McRae said the City would put a summary of the Dec. 11 meeting and other information on its website, cityofevanston.org.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...