UPPER WEST SIDE — Wheelchair-using children would play side-by-side with kids of various physical and mental abilities under a plan by a group of locals and city officials to create an all-inclusive play environment at a neighborhood playground.
A group of Community Board 7 members and Parks Department employees envisions Bloomingdale Playground, on Amsterdam Avenue between West 104th and 105th streets, as not just accessible to children of all abilities but one that promotes the idea of play among all kinds of kids.
They hope to transform the playground — which is used by P.S. 145 during school hours but is otherwise open to the public — by adding features like chess tables with room for wheelchairs to pull up, swings for children with movement problems, platforms that a walker can mount, or quiet areas for children with behavioral issues.
“There are places that are accessible, but don’t necessarily encourage children of different abilities to play together,” explained board member Rita Genn at a public meeting Wednesday to kick off the planning, noting that the playground they want wouldn't have separate areas for disabled and non-disabled kids.
"We’re trying to get the wheelchair right into the play," added Nancy Prince, the Parks Department's deputy chief of design, of the agency's goals for the space.
Steve Simon, Manhattan chief of staff for the department, and Chris Noel, the agency's accessibility coordinator, attended the Wednesday meeting along with Prince to review what inclusive design looks like at other city playgrounds, as well as brainstorm about Bloomingdale.
To make sure wheelchair users aren't on the sidelines, the Parks Department works with equipment manufacturers to design play equipment, benches and water fountains at varying heights and with users of different abilities in mind.
Inclusivity and accessibility isn't just about helping kids with mobility issues get around, Prince said. The definition of those concepts has expanded for the Parks Department to include serving kids with other challenges and needs, like those with autism.
"Sometimes the parents have told us the kids [with autism] like a quieter place. And sometimes they like to do repetitive things," she explained.
The Parks Department tries to go above and beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act when redesigning a playground, like it did with Playground 123 in Morningside Park, Prince said. At that site, the agency made all of the swings universally accessible, not just one swing in the row.
Noel, of the Parks Department, said he often sends people looking for a fully accessible playground to Playground 123.
"We are on the ball in making sure our parks are more accessible," he added.
However, one resident who attended the meeting worried that making Bloomingdale Playground accessible would diminish its popularity.
"My concern would be will they use it? If no one shows up it’s kind of worthless," said Ira Gershenhorn, a local resident and former P.S. 166 parent. "I’m concerned that you’re trying to address too many constituencies with one brush."
But Noel countered that the department would seamlessly integrate the accessible playground features so that kids don't even notice them.
Brad Taylor, a member of Community Board 9 and the Friends of Morningside Park, said he too initially shared Gershenhorn's concerns.
"I was skeptical about [Playground 123] as well, but when they open you will find they are just swamped with kids," he said.
P.S. 145's principal, Natalia Garcia, and the Parks Department, are both supportive of the plan and have lended their approval to the project.
Though CB7 doesn't have any funding committed by the Parks Department or elected officials for the project, the group of five board members is optimistic about finding financial support to modify, move and add play features to create a space that will become a neighborhood destination.
When the full plan and estimated price are fleshed out, City Councilmember Mark Levine will consider investing in the project as part of his 2015-2016 budget, which will get submitted and approved this coming June, a spokeswoman from his office said. While Levine is generally supportive of the project, he'd like to see more details before making a commitment, she said.
Levine, together with former Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have already committed $1.3 million to renovate the basketball courts next to the playground. The public will get a chance to weigh in on the design, but Simon said he'd ideally like to model it after the new track and courts at P.S. 87 on West 77th Street. Construction on this portion of the playground wouldn't begin until the end of 2016, he said.
For those interested in on Bloomingdale Playground's redesign, the next public meeting is set for Dec. 17 at 6 p.m. at Community Board 7's offices, 250 W. 87th St.