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Yoga-Loving Seniors Reach Park Peace Accord Over Exercise Equipment

By Amy Zimmer | January 6, 2012 2:48pm
Menna Olvera (foreground, dressed in black) works with Loretta Ponticello, 89, during a body fitness class for seniors, sponsored by the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association in John Jay Park.
Menna Olvera (foreground, dressed in black) works with Loretta Ponticello, 89, during a body fitness class for seniors, sponsored by the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association in John Jay Park.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

UPPER EAST SIDE — The group of yoga-loving senior citizens who railed against plans for exercise equipment that would have cluttered up their space in John Jay Park were overcome with peace and serenity after getting a look at the Parks Department’s latest plans for what will become the city's first "adult playground."

The Parks Department has backed off of a set of controversial plans to install a set of exercise equipment from an anonymous donor inside the park, a 3.3-acre green space between East 76th and 78th streets overlooking the East River that is renovating one corner just for seniors.

Community Board 8 unleashed a frenzy among senior fitness enthusiasts when it announced plans to install four pieces of exercise equipment geared to older adults that had been donated by an anonymous philanthropist. 

The gear was intended to augment the space currently used for group exercise like yoga and body fitness — but those in the classes worried it would crowd them out of their space, and they distruted the donation, worried they would become guinea pigs for a company wanting to break into the city's park system.

Instead, the Parks Dept. has agreed to install a stationary bike, core trainer and tai chi-like machine in a portion of the park that doesn't get in the way of the classes, according to a presentation by the Parks Department Thursday night. The equipment will come from Kompan, a company its worked with before, though Parks has never before used this equipment designed for seniors, officials said. 

The section will likely be labeled for adults only, officials said.

The six- to eight-week renovation project will also include a new soft rubber surface for the exercise classes and two new garden areas.

“We’re going green it up, brighten it up and get people back into the park,” Brad Romaker told Community Board 8.

The yoga-loving seniors were pleased with the plan, as were members of the community board, who have been eying the project as an innovative way to address the needs of the area’s growing elderly population.

“I hope that John Jay becomes a model,” CB8 Parks Committee co-chair Barbara Rudder told her colleagues.

Many elderly residents who live near the park had said they didn’t want to accept the anonymous gift because since the equipment had never been used in New York City, they worried it wasn’t properly vetted.

They also questioned who would pay for upkeep and worried that the equipment would need significant maintenance. Some expressed concern that the equipment would attract teens, and they said they preferred the group fitness classes where they were helped along by a trained professional rather than being unsupervised on equipment.

Terry Grace, a volunteer at John Jay Park, said she was pleased the Parks Department opted for a company it was familiar with and limited the number of pieces to three.

“The public is happy because it’s basically what was designed by the community,” Grace said.

City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin had secured $250,000 for the renovation, and the community board approved a plan for new benches, chess tables, and a soft ground surface.

The project will now head to the Public Design Commission for approval, and Romaker said he hoped to get construction started by fall.

Loretta Poniticello, an avid yoga class attendee who had fought the donation and now embraced the latest iteration, was worried about the timeline.

“It’s going to take months and months,” said Ponticello, who is 89 years old. “I’m probably not going to be here when it’s all done. Let’s move it along.”

Grace assured Poniticello she would be able to see the renovation through.

“You’re going to cut the ribbon,” she told Ponticello.