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The future of Penny Park now looks to be much the same as the past, now that City Council accepted the recommendations of the Parks and Recreation Board on Oct. 19. Those recommendations call for the renovation or rehabilitation rather than replacement of existing park equipment. The board also jettisoned plans for a pavilion and restrooms.
Earlier preliminary plans, created after public meetings and input from school children at Cherry Preschool and Dewey Elementary School during “design days” in March and April 2014, led to Council’s approving preliminary plans in October 2014. Originally, said Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite at that time, the City allocated $150,000 toward the park.
At that point, the proposal ran into a buzz saw of controversy because of the possibility that wooden park features might be replaced by plastic equipment similar to that in other parks in Evanston. When neighbors learned of the preliminary plans, a “Preserve Penny Park” organization founded by area activist Lauren Barski sprung into action.
Dozens of neighbors began to fill City Council chambers in late 2014, demanding the preservation of the park’s unique feel and materials. Public comment repeatedly told the story of the park, funded in part by pennies collected from schoolchildren and built for the most part in a day by nearby residents and by hand.
Message received. In January 2015, Council sent the Penny Park problem to the Parks and Recreation Board. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said, at the time, the referral “puts all options on the table,” meaning the preliminary plans were all but scrapped. The Board essentially started from scratch, considering the matter a “blank slate,” Board Chair Daniel Stein said last February.
The Board met multiple times over the next several months, ultimately deciding to engage consultant “Playground Guardian” to complete a $3,300 study of the park. The consultant noted significant deterioration and maintenance issues with the park and recommended one of three courses of action – replace the park equipment, renew the existing park, or remove the equipment then restore and replace it.
According to the consultant’s report, “no items were tested below the surfacing elevation during the on-site visit.” In March 2014, both the City and the original park contractor Leathers and Associates noted rotting wood below ground surface.
After reviewing the consultant’s report, the Parks and Recreation Board recommended that Council first terminate the existing contract with Leathers, approved in October 2014, then issue a request for proposals (RFP) “for the renovation/rehabilitation of Penny Park, which should include options for both a Community Build and a traditional Contractor build with wood, [and] if necessary facilitate any public design process…”
The cost ballooned from the original $150,000 to $500,000, to be included in the 2016 Capital Improvement Plan. In addition, Leathers is to be paid up to $40,000 for work already done.
Council voted unanimously to approve the Board recommendation, and the move seemed to make nearly everyone happy. Public comment brought several speakers, including Ms. Barski, urging approval. Aldermen praised the process and extensive public involvement in the Board’s meetings and report.
“This is Evanston – we listen to the concerns of everyone,” said Ald. Braithwaite. He thanked Ms. Barski and Mr. Stein for their contributions and for “caring.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, praised the Board’s report, included in the Council packet. “This report was just superb,” she said. “[The Board] took this mess from us and fixed it.”
Council chambers filled with hoots and applause as soon as the vote was completed. The RFP should issue by year end, and work on the project is expected to take place in 2016.