By Julie Shapiro
FINANCIAL DISTRICT — An hour after David Rockwell’s new Imagination Playground opened in the Seaport Tuesday afternoon, children were already building rocket ships, battling with swords and tunneling to the center of the Earth.
The $4.5 million playground — featuring large foam movable parts, spurting water fountains, mountains of sand, a boardwalk and a crow’s nest — represents a departure from traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment.
“Kids will have the opportunity to do what they do best,” Rockwell said at Tuesday’s opening ceremony. “Dream [something up], create it, and then rip it all down and start over again.”
Rockwell drew inspiration for his pro-bono design from his young children, now 8 and 10 years old, and said this is the most personally significant project he has ever completed. Rockwell's previous designs include Robert De Niro’s Nobu restaurant and two of the city’s W hotels, along with a set for the Academy Awards.
The playground at Burling Slip and South Street earned rave reviews from the dozens of children who moved busily through it Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a wonderful place,” said Jordan Williams, 11, a Brooklyn resident, when he took a break from directing other children in building a moat. “It’s so beautiful — all this water and sand. I like that they gave us shovels so we can dig.”
Nearby, another group of kids was constructing an enormous castle-like structure out of Rockwell’s signature blue foam blocks.
“We like it because you can build things,” said Ali Bianco, 9, a lower Manhattan resident.
Asked what she was building, Bianco looked to her friend for help.
“We don’t know!” Lena Savino, 8, said gleefully, and then the pair went back to work.
The playground, built with a grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, will cost several hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain, mostly for the “play workers” who are on hand to make sure the kids don’t misuse the equipment in a dangerous way. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said Rockwell has helped raise the maintenance money privately.
The city may consider building another Rockwell-designed playground elsewhere, but in the meantime, some of the portable pieces are available in 10 parks this summer, including one on the High Line and another in Washington Heights.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who led Tuesday’s ceremony, said he and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver might sneak into the park at night to chat and give the equipment a try.
“Deep down, we’re all children inside,” Bloomberg said.