Katy Clark came to Bennett Park almost every summer day with her two children. But as much as she likes the place – “This park runs really well,” she says, enjoying an ice cream bar – she’d still like a fountain for younger children, and her husband dislikes the four-foot-high chain link fence around the lawn.
Both will be happy when the Parks Department begins major renovations next year here on Fort Washington Avenue at 183rd Street in Washington Heights.
The upgrades include a post-and-chain fence and a playground spray shower, according to plans presented to Community Board 12, with construction set to begin in early summer. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilman Robert Jackson have each allocated $600,000 in capital funds for the project. Ten blocks south, J. Hood Wright Park will also get an upgrade, with $800,000 allocated by former City Councilman Miguel Martinez.
The new Bennett Park design replaces much of the asphalt play area, where older children play soccer, resurfacing it with a resilient material similar to that used on running tracks. The plan also adds benches, game tables and a period cannon commemorating the history of the park, which sits atop earthen fortifications of Revolutionary-era Fort Washington.
In J. Hood Wright Park, workers will re-landscape the lawn to improve drainage and prevent pooling, lay down safety surface in the playground, and bring an entrance ramp into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
At Jay’s Run, the popular dog run, fences stand at odd angles today from erosion and the woodchip surface laid down a year ago has crumbled into dirt. The renovation will address both problems and add a drinking fountain with a water bowl for dogs. That addition elicited approving murmurs from the dog-owning set at the CB 12 meeting.
The Parks Department will renovate the Wright Bros. playground at P.S. 28 on 155th street next summer, too, adding new play equipment, a butterfly garden and ADA-compliant fixes to the bathrooms.
Parks Department administrator Jennifer Hoppa presented the first set of new plans to the Public Design Commission, which must sign off on all city landscape projects, in September 2009. Community Board 12 chair Pamela Palanque-North sees the long planning process as important. The renovated parks will better serve their communities and add needed play space for children, she says.
Forty-seven percent of children in Washington Heights and Inwood are obese or overweight, compared to 40 percent citywide, according to a Department of Education report released in early September.
The Parks Department will resubmit designs for the Commission’s approval on October 25 and hopes to draw up contracts by late December, starting a four-month contractor bidding period.
Some of those who’ve fought the longest for improvements now praise the Parks Department. “I think that people have really been listened to,” says Diana Douglas, a volunteer at J. Hood Wright Park for over 20 years. “Water has always been a need, and finally we’re getting it.”
James Amodeo has waited a long time to hear the renovation news – since 2006, when local dog owners raised almost $2,500 to install a pergola, or arbor, in the dog run. “That put us on the map,” Amodeo says. “It made us look legitimate and made it easier to make the plea for city funds.”
“I was really excited,” he says, when he saw his requests included in the city’s plans.
Still, some question linger.
“What happens when the dog run is closed for renovation?” Amodeo wonders. Others at the meeting raised that same question about the two playgrounds, since construction is expected to overlap.
At the September meeting, users of both parks also questioned the Parks Department’s ability to keep the new lawns green and healthy. “Public outreach during construction is going to be key,” said Hoppa, but she also asked park users to be vigilant and report problems to 311, the city’s information hotline.
Delays could ensue: in fiscal 2010, just 76 percent of park capital projects were completed early or on time, according to the Mayor’s Management Report; the city’s stated goal is 80 percent.
“This area is probably much lower on the priority list than parks downtown,” says Erin McIntyre, who frequents J. Hood Wright Park with her dog, Lucky.
But she’s pleased. Water in the dog run will be “amazing,” she says, and new lighting will make that area safer in the evening when the run is most crowded. She’ll wait expectantly for the renovations, despite the long fight and the work still to come.
All in all, says Douglas, the veteran park activist, the renovations mark “a major coup for the community.”