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Parks Dept. Chief Yells at Parents for Opposing UWS Playground Renovations

By Emily Frost | July 2, 2014 4:37pm
 The two sides of the epic Playground 89 battle traded accusations, but ultimately the new redesign was approved by CB7. 
Playground 89
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A typically reserved Parks Department staffer lost his cool at a meeting Tuesday to discuss the long-stalled redesign of a local playground — yelling at a group of parents for holding up the renovation process. 

The employee's fury focused on a group made up of residents and parents called Friends of Playground 89, who refuse to support the latest version of the Parks Department's design for a playground that has been blamed for causing concussions, broken bones and chipped teeth because of an uneven surface.

Steve Simon, Manhattan chief of staff for the department, leaped from his chair and yelled at parents who fought the redesign because it removes a single step from the playground's original amphitheater. 

"This controversy comes down to a 6-inch step," he barked in response to the group's refusal to compromise. "That’s what it comes down to." 

The overhaul was ultimately approved by Community Board 7 at the meeting Tuesday. Friends of Playground 89 and an opposing group of parents, led by the PTA and the school's principal, have argued over the plans for more than a year.

Simon, who has attended most of the meetings about the redesign, usually sat silently to the side, weighing in only on questions of timing or the project's budget. But on Tuesday, he accused Friends of Playground 89 of preventing progress on the $950,000 renovation of the West 89th Street play space that abuts P.S. 166.

Removing only one step is a compromise from Parks' initial plan, which would have removed the amphitheater completely, Simon explained.

Both groups agreed the amphitheater could remain, but P.S. 166's principal requested the removal of three steps to create more play space. The department decided on removing only one step, he said.

"Back in May, when we had a substantially similar plan, Friends of Playground 89 supported the plan," Simon said. "We made one substantial change — we compromised with the principal."

The group still withdrew its support.

This spring, Community Board 7 complied with a Freedom of Information Act request by Friends of Playground 89 to turn over all emails discussing the space.

The group's leader, nearby resident Stephanie Crossman, accused the Parks Department of buckling to the demands of the school's former PTA president, who suggested the playground be padlocked at the end of the school year because it wasn't safe.

"The Parks Department was pressured into doing this [re]design," Crossman said, calling the plan a "sham." "This plan was primarily driven by one parent by making these false safety claims."

Nancy Prince, the Parks Department's deputy chief of design, tried to calm the discussion, which featured hissing, cheering and people jumping out of their seats.

"We’ve listened to all the sides...We’ve gone back to the drawing table a couple times. We’ve not left anyone out of the process," she told those assembled.

Community Board 7 voted unanimously to approve the new design, which still requires approval from the Public Design Commission.

Simon said construction will take six months and he expects it will be finished by next summer.