A unanimous vote at the Jan. 26 City Council meeting sent the issue of Penny Park to the City’s Parks and Recreation Board. That move, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, “puts all options on the table” – whether to renovate the park, preserving as much of it as possible; to rebuild it with a different design; or to let it age in place another year or more.

Penny Park, one of the City’s most intensely used parks, evokes strong feelings from the neighbors who live nearby, from parents of children who play there now or who have played there, from the children themselves and from the many volunteers who, in the space of about nine days 24 years ago, built the park they had conceived and funded: They wish to see as much of the park preserved as possible.

Evolution of Safety or Signs of the Times?

The wooden equipment, the hiding places, the wide design that lets kids of all ages play together and chase each other along the turrets and bridges and the imaginative design have captured the heart of generations of Evanstonians. Most of those features, however, would be eliminated if the park is redesigned rather than renovated. Representatives of Leathers & Associates, the firm that helped neighbors design and build the park, say that wood is no longer an acceptable material for parks, that allowing more visibility is preferred to creating hiding spaces and that parks should have separate play areas for older (5- to 12-year-old) and younger (2- to-5-year-old) children. Further, the playground is not ADA-compliant.

Representatives from Leathers have visited the City at least twice over the past year, once in March to talk with children at Dewey School and Cherry Preschool – since they are nearest to the park – and in December to conduct a meeting and unveil a concept design for the park. That design incorporated the greater visibility and the divided play concepts, with the equipment made of a plastic composite with a longer life than wood. Kyle Cundy, who represented Leathers at the Dec. 11 meeting, said the company had not been asked to renovate or “preserve” the park but to “re-create” it.

The palpable disappointment and frustration at the Dec. 11 meeting and the requests by Penny Park neighbors and others to see if the park could be renovated may have been the catalysts to bring to Council the matter of what to do with Penny Park.

How Did It Come to This?

Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam made the motion to send the matter to the Parks and Recreation Board. “They are great stewards of our parks,” he said, adding he thought the process should have originated with that board.

“It seems to me the fundamental breakdown is that the starting point is tearing the park down,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. “That is where we went astray. Personally, I never viewed that as the starting point.” He said he did not like the idea of tearing down the park and “convincing others it’s going to be better. … Community input is the most important part.” He added he felt “the City staff and the Council are committed to keeping [the park] the way it is.”

Penny Park, in Plea and Anecdote

Some Council members had anecdotes to tell about the park before they voted on the motion. For the most part, their comments were in synch with those of the residents who spoke during the citizen comment period in favor of preserving the park.

Alex Añon, who owns Bucephalus Bikes, across the street from the park, said the park was “built by many hands, with good intentions … built for children of all ages and with materials and methods that are easy to understand. … I have yet to hear or see fist-hand a good reason for the structure to be replaced.” He studied and practiced architecture for more than 10 years, he said, and “I believe the structure can be repaired and modified to accommodate all children, including children with disabilities.

Katie Young, a fifth-grader at Lincolnwood School, said, “It has come to my attention that the City of Evanston is going to demolish this park.” She said she had drawn up a petition objecting to the proposed demolition, which her friends and members of her soccer team had signed. Instead of tearing it down, she suggested, “You can change it, update it, make it better.”

Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne said she had not heard from her son in college for a couple of weeks and when he emailed her he wrote, “What do you mean – Penny Park is going to be demolished?”

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “I absolutely have to be part of a Penny Park rehab.” She said she took her now-15-year-old granddaughter to Penny Park as a 2-year-old, and “when she saw it, she applauded.”

Pavilion and Bathroom?

Two matters needed clarification: the composition of Leathers & Associates and the possibility of a restroom and a pavilion.

“This is not the same Leathers [as created the first park]?” asked Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward.

“It is the same organization,” said Peter Braithwaite, alderman of the Second Ward, where Penny Park sits.

“The original folks [who helped design the Park 24 years ago] are now with [the company] Play by Design,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. Play By Design, said Penny Park neighbor Lauren Barski, still uses wood in its playground equipment.

Ald. Braithwaite also said no decision had been made about the pavilion or the bathroom. He said he understood, and felt most residents did as well, that those items would have to be funded privately. “We realize that Penny Park is a highly used park and there are no facilities nearby. Neighbors’ houses have become the public restroom facilities, so one of the things I’ve heard is that if we’re going to renovate the park, we might as well have a bathroom.”

Ald. Holmes seemed wary of having a bathroom in Penny Park, because, she said, “the three parks in my ward” do not have them.

Next Steps

Ald. Braithwaite thanked the residents who came to speak at this and other meetings. He said he favors “the Leathers approach” and cautioned, “My biggest concern is that if we don’t listen to each other and if we’re not careful, we’ll get nothing.”

A steering committee for Penny Park has been appointed, to help with fund-raising, coordinate volunteers, etc.  Amina DiMarco, a member of the Parks and Recreation Board, will also sit on the steering committee. Donations toward the new incarnation of Penny Park may be made through the Parks and Recreation Board, Ald. Braithwaite said.

The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 7:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at various City-owned locations. Its next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 19 at Chandler-Newberger Community Center, 1028 Central St.

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...