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The City’s Parks and Recreation Board will treat the process of making recommendations for the future of Penny Park as a blank slate, its chairman Daniel Stein said on Feb. 19. The matter came to the Board circumlocutiously: The City hired a design team and held several public meetings, some of which were rancorous, before City Council referred the matter to this board.

Now, beginning anew, the Parks and Recreation Board will discuss and make recommendations about what should become of one of the City’s most used and most loved parks.

“We are really glad to have the Penny Park project. We have been frustrated – as many of you – at the lack of process. This is a group that knows and loves Evanston and has been here a long, long time. We’re looking at the process as a blank slate,” Mr. Stein said to the some 20 people who attended the meeting. The design concept proposed by Leathers & Associates, the company that helped design and build the current park, he said, is off the table.

Public Comment

Speakers, most of them residents of the Penny Park area, talked about the park and what it means to the neighborhood, to Evanston and to the larger community that loves the park.

About 25 years ago, residents in the Lake/Ashland/Florence area came up with the idea of a park there to counteract a proposal by the City to use the space at Lake Street and Ashland Avenue for a different purpose.  They raised money, recruited volunteers to help build the park under the supervision of Leathers & Associates, held a contest to name the park and eventually turned it over to the City, along with about $60,000 to be used for maintenance.  “I’ve never seen a neighborhood like this – much of which I attribute to the park. It was the glue that held the community together,” said Ken Walczak, Penny Park neighbor added that helping with the park was “one of the best things I’ve done.”

George Rieger, another resident who helped with the original park, said he had recently visited Indian Boundary Park in Chicago, another Leathers & Associates project that was completed at about the same time as Penny Park. The fact that Penny Park is “in much better shape speaks to the maintenance the City has done,” he said.  

Joe McRae, director of Parks, Recreation and Community Service for the City, thanked the residents who spoke “for your passion about the park. Passion in parks is a good thing, and I think it will produce good results for Penny Park.”  He mentioned several issues that have been raised about the park, which he thought the board should discuss: the lack of ADA compliance, safety issues, the possibility of a pavilion and bathrooms and the comparative cost of materials.  

Mr. Stein also said he thought they would discuss whether or not to have a “community build” for the next iteration of the park. “Should it be a community build or a regular build with community support? Rebuilding Penny Park is a different paradigm.”

Safety vs. Free and Imaginative Play

The “safety” issues appeared to fall into two categories: visibility of children playing in the park and teenage activities. Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite said some parents had complained that because the slats on the playground equipment are so close together they cannot always see their children. The redesign concept presented by Leathers & Associates showed two distinct play areas, one for kids ages 2-5 and one for older children. It also showed equipment made of a composite.

Public Works Director Suzette Robinson said the crews that
clean and maintain the parks find evidence of teenage activities. “If kids ever got to the park before the maintenance crews, people would be shocked at the evidence of these activities,” she said.

“That is not dissimilar to any other park,” said board member David Campbell, adding that he walks his dog early in the morning at Lincolnwood School.

Mr. Rieger, who said he lives across from the park, said he does hear teenagers in the park at night but “I don’t hear a lot going on.”  He also said, referring to the “visibility” of children, “Kids don’t get lost in the park.”

Board member Amina DiMarco said, “Penny Park is one of the parks where you can have free play.” Two residents spoke, similarly, about the need for “free and imaginative play,” which the park now offers, with its castle-like playground, a hill used for sledding in winter and a field used for soccer games, running around and other free play.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be the ‘fun police,’” said Mr. Stein.

Lauren Barski, another Penny Park area resident, said the recommendations for two separate playgrounds are “industry standards,” not legal mandates. She also said that everyone agrees that ADA compliance is necessary but suggested that what it means for a park be clarified.

Bathrooms and Materials

 The board touched on two other items, a possible bathroom and the material that would be used in renovation, but left them for later discussion.

Ms. DiMarco said she sees putting a bathroom in a park “is a matter of equity.”

“Then it becomes an arms race,” said Mr. Stein.

Whether the park is rehabbed or renovated top to bottom, the type of material used in the equipment is likely to be a talking – if not a sticking – point. Leathers & Company no longer uses pressed wood but instead a composite that they say has a 50-year life span. Residents at this and other public meetings who spoke about the material said they prefer wood to plastic.

“We want wood,” said Mr. Rieger. It has a restorative balance. Kids’ lives are full of plastic.” Alex Aòon, owner of Bucephalus Bikes, adjacent to the park, said, “Recycled materials dot have the same resonance for kids that wood does. When children get to a structure like [Penny Park] they respond with a sense of imagination.”

Next Steps

Although the City had executed a contract with Leathers & Associates for about $40,000, Ms. Robinson said the company did not perform an evaluation of the structures in the park because they said the life span was only about 20 years.

The board unanimously agreed to ask City staff to conduct an evaluation of the park when conditions permit and provide cost estimates of bringing “at least certain parts to ADA compliance.”

Board member Marcus Cassidy said, “I would encourage anyone who has a stake in this park or other parks to come to our meetings. The next meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on March 19.