By Julie Shapiro
FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Kids love everything about downtown's new Imagination Playground — except the fact that it's closed most of the time.
"I want it to be open more," said Oona Gillespie, 6, as she waved a magic wand fashioned from a stick while playing at the park recently. "It closes too early, so I can't go after school."
Oona, who lives just a few blocks from the John Street playground, is one of many children who often find its doors locked.
The innovative, $4.5 million playground was initially open 10 hours a day when it launched last summer, but the city quickly cut back the hours as the weather got colder. It is now open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends, according to the park's website.
One reason for the restricted hours is that the playground is unlike any other in city, said Nancy Barthold, assistant commissioner of recreation and programming at the Parks Department.
The playground requires a staff of "play associates" on site to monitor the movable foam parts and ensure that no one vandalizes or steals them, Barthold said. Rather than pay a full-time staff in the winter when few children would use the park, the city decided to cut back the hours and close the playground entirely on some days when the temperature dropped below freezing, because it was too cold for the staff to work, Barthold said.
The city pays for the play associates using an endowment raised by architect David Rockwell, who designed the park.
"We could put a full-time staff there, but we're trying to [make] the endowment last," Barthold said.
Barthold said she heard from many parents about the restricted hours and plans to start keeping the park open longer soon, as the weather warms. The park should be open six hours a day within the next few weeks, and it will return to the even longer hours over the summer, she said.
The Parks Department did not immediately respond to questions about the size of the endowment and the cost of the play associates.
Suzann Dunaway, Oona's mother, said she and her daughter love Imagination Playground, with its sand pit, water features, boardwalk and crow's nest, but it's not worth all the fancy features if it can't be open all day year-round.
"If there were a [more traditional] playground that were open more hours, for a range of ages, I think I'd prefer that," Dunaway said.
Ronald Ruiz, 65, a Bronx resident, treks down to lower Manhattan several times a week to bring his ex-wife's 4-year-old daughter to the playground.
"It's spectacular," Ruiz said as the young girl begged to take off her shoes to play in the sand. "It's got everything. But I've been here many times when it's shut."
Ruiz suggested that the city find local volunteers to staff the park, enabling it to be open longer hours.
Paul Hovitz, co-chairman of Community Board 1's Youth and Education Committee, said he has heard complaints from parents as well, and he hopes to take up the issue at an upcoming meeting.
Barthold said she is open to any suggestions.
"We're happy to hear from people," she said.