P.S. 166 Playground Redesign Approved Despite Opposition
UPPER WEST SIDE — Local leaders approved the city's proposed changes to a sloped public park in disrepair — a decision that left sparring Upper West Side parents further divided at a hearing Monday night.
A faction of parents at P.S. 166 has been asking for changes to the playground, which they said has caused repeated injuries, including chipped teeth, broken bones and concussions, for more than a year, said Parks Committee Chair Klari Neuwalt.
The Parks Department said residents and politicians have been pressing them for changes for quite some time.
"This is not something we’re coming to the community board with out of thin air or left field. We’re responding to the elected officials," said Steve Simon, the chief of staff for the Parks Department in Manhattan, referencing the $300,000 each contributed by City Councilmember Gale Brewer and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
The Parks Department has been in talks with the P.S. 166 Parent Association and Community Board 7 and local residents throughout the spring, soliciting input, reps said.
"We’ve heard the injuries are on the granite block slope and we’ve eliminated those areas," said Nancy Prince, deputy chief of design for the Parks Department. "We did take out the things that would cause the most tripping."
Prince said she and other designers talked to M. Paul Friedberg, the original architect in 1967, when the playground was built, and though he emphasized that the bowl, created by a sloped wall on the southern part of the space, must be kept, Prince said they decided to remove it.
"We listened to what everyone had to say and we tried to make a compromise," she said.
Instead of a bowl, the lower section will be raised, creating a more continuous section for play, Prince said. She noted that the amphitheater, at the eastern section, a remnant of the original design, would remain intact, but lose two rows of seating.
Smoother blocks would also be used on the amphitheater, she said.
Prince added that the department considered all sides of the argument.
"We also heard: 'We want to keep the general character of the design,'" she said.
Meanwhile, residents and parents who oppose the proposed redesign and want a longer public process to discuss any changes formed an opposition group called Friends of Playground 89 and turned out en masse Monday night wearing bright stickers reading "FOP89."
The group filed a lawsuit demanding that the Parks Department cease and desist with any construction plans in June; the lawsuit was withdrawn on Wednesday, the group's lawyer, John Crossman, said.
The public discussion period turned heated Monday, with the two sides arranged roughly opposite each other, each with members jumping up and shouting each other down at times. Though Community Board Chair Mark Diller asked for no applause and for speakers to specifically share a critique of the design and not of each other, the room often grew raucous with applause and hollering, with each side demanding more time to speak.
"Please, what I want to ask you to understand is that the only thing we’re asking for is that we have a safe place for our kids to play," pleaded Christine DiPasquale, who was the parent association president until July 1.
Residents from nearby streets testified that their voice had been left out of discussions about the design.
"This is not a school yard, it’s a park. It’s a park that the school uses when the school is in session," said resident Steve Hoss. "You have to open this up and reconsider and allow the community to be part of this process."
Noah Gotbaum, a CEC member, noted that "there is a major feeling that people have been left out of this process." Mel Wymore, a board member, asked for another month for people to try to build consensus.
But another education committee member said more time would be riskier for children — and wouldn't necessarily bring the opposing parents toward a resolution.
"What we have to risk with more time is more injuries," the member, Eric Shuffler, said. "I don’t believe that more time is going to result in a kumbaya consensus."
Parents pushing for the change insisted they informed the neighborhood and involved the community in discussions, plastering nearby streets with fliers about meetings to talk about the playground.
After hours of hearing testimony, the committees came down strongly in favor of the proposed redesign, deciding that because the school had no choice but to use the playground as its play yard, their concerns had to be weighted more.
"While I love inventive, creative playgrounds, this functions as the only yard for a public school. The paramount use of this space is as a public school yard," said Education Committee Chair Marisa Maack.
"If we don’t level that slope, we would have failed in the mission of redesigning this playground," she concluded.
The playground plans will go to the full Community Board Tuesday night for a vote and then to the City's Design Commission. Prince and Simon did not want to speculate about when construction might begin, but said it should take under a year and be on budget.