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'Dangerous' UWS Playground's Redesign Back to Drawing Board, Locals Say

By Emily Frost | October 3, 2013 12:28pm
 Renovations that parents expected to move along quickly have been stalled by city agencies. 
UWS Playground Renovations Delayed for Months
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The city is reconsidering the redesign of a "dangerous" local playground after telling parents the plan was a done deal — delaying improvements for months even though funding was awarded for the project more than a year ago, community leaders said.

In August, parents at P.S. 166 anxious about their children's return to the school's playground — which is also open to the public and has been blamed for a host of injuries, including concussions and broken bones — learned the planned renovations had been stalled by the city. 

The Parks Department, which is overseeing the renovations, previously said the Public Design Commission would review the plans this summer. But the commission removed the review from its August agenda — a move some felt was motivated by a tug-of-war among parents over the design — leaving the playground's reconstruction timeline uncertain. 

At the time, the Parks Department said it was not changing or modifying the designs, which had been approved by Community Board 7 at a contentious meeting in July, but that it was simply waiting for the commission to schedule a hearing. 

But this week, CB7 revealed the Parks Department is looking to change the design after the agency told residents it was set in stone over the summer. Board member Marissa Maack said she heard from Councilwoman Gale Brewer's office that the department is sending the redesign plan back to the drawing board.

The Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment.

"The Design Commission asked the architect at the Parks Department whether there was a way to alter the design to allow the amphitheater to stay in a safer way," said CB7 Education Committee member Eric Shuffler, referring to a curved playing surface that some parents have said is dangerous, at a meeting earlier this week.

Shuffler said he learned the Parks Department had gotten in touch with the playground's original designer, M. Paul Friedberg, to talk about other design possibilities. 

A spokeswoman for Brewer's office confirmed the department was talking to Friedberg. The architect did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, at a meeting on July 10, Nancy Prince, deputy chief of design for the Parks Department, said saving the playground's original shape wasn't possible.

"If there was a way to regrout the blocks and keep them in place...if that was possible, we would have done that," she told the community board.  

Meanwhile, the delays persist as the months pass and children play on what has been deemed by the city, community members and educators an unsafe space because of its curved surface and broken Belgian blocks. 

The Parks Department needs the Design Commission's approval before it can put the work out to bid and eventually begin construction. 

The commission did not have a review of the renovations on its calendar for either of its two September meetings and canceled its October meeting altogether. 

The deadline to get on its Nov. 12 meeting agenda is Oct. 18. If the designs are approved, construction would begin this winter, with the risk of weather delays.  

The Design Commission also did not return a request for comment.

One group of parents and residents, who have organized under the name "Friends of Playground 89," believe the play space's amphitheater should be kept intact. Others believe the space should be flattened, which is the route the Parks Department originally decided to take. 

"Everything is in a holding pattern pending further discussion," Shuffler said.

At an earlier community meeting on the playground's future, Shuffler cautioned his colleagues not to wait in making a decision on the Parks Department's initial plan to remove the amphitheater. 

"What we have to risk with more time is more injuries," he said. 

Parents had hoped the entire process would be streamlined given the safety issues at stake, and that construction could begin while school was out over the summer. 

"The playground should be fixed before school is back in session. No more delays," Jessica Kahn wrote back in July on an online petition to support the playground's renovation. 

A total of $600,000 was allocated for the playground's renovation in June 2012, with $300,000 coming from City Councilwoman Gale Brewer and another $300,000 from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.