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Evanston aldermen tonight are scheduled to award a contract to complete the redesign of Penny Park, amid some anxiety about the project from some neighborhood residents.

The existing wooden playground facilities in the park at Ashland Avenue and Lake Street were built in 1991 with community volunteers, and the city plans to bring back the same firm that helped lead the volunteer effort then to do the rebuild next year.

That firm, Leathers and Associates, has designed thousands of parks across the country using the community building process over more than four decades.

And the city has already brought the firm back to develop a preliminary design for the park upgrade project with three commuity meetings over the past year and a half.

The new contract, for just under $39,000, covers the final design and construction supervision and envisions completing the design by January, two additional community meetings to refine the design in February and May, and then construction next August.

The total cost of the project, including construction work, is expected to be just over $451,000.

Some neighbors, including Lauren Barski, who lives across from the park on Florence Avenue, have objected to the plan to replace the existing wood play structures with ones made of plastic.

But at a 2nd Ward meeting Thursday Public Works Director Suzette Robinson showed an example of the composite material from Bedford Technology that Leathers now uses for its projects.

She said lumber, created from recycled plastic, is “very close to a wood color and from the street will look very similar.”

Robinson added that the plastic material is more durable than wood and in compliance with current standards for playground safety.

Robinson said the existing wooden structures are decaying where they’re in contact with the ground and it “wouldn’t be prudent” to wait until they actually fail before making replacements.

She said leaders at Leathers have told her the park has exceeded its expected life and that Penny Park is one of the oldest playgrounds they’ve worked on that is still being used in its original form.

Neighbors concerned about the park project have set up a website, preservepennypark.com, and circulated fliers in the neighborhood last week urging residents to attend tonight’s council meeting.

Another speaker at the ward meeting objected to the separation of toddler and bigger kids’ play spaces in the new design, but Robinsons said the city’s recreation staff believes that’s a good choice — because the two age groups “sometimes don’t play well together — even when it’s siblings in the different age groups.”

The preliminary sketch of a new Penny Park layout, from the city website.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, told residents at Thursday’s meeting he hopes the Penny Park project can spark more community involvement in the maintenance and improvement of city parks.

He noted that supporters of the new Grandmother Park at 1125 Dewey Ave. raised $200,000 for that project.

“We can do the same with Penny Park and Harbert Park” another park in the ward, Braithwaite added.

He noted that some residents have said they’d like to see a restroom facility in Penny Park — but that’s not included in the current project budget.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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2 Comments

  1. Don’t take away the park..

    As a new parent to the neighborhood I am disappointed at the choice to want to demolish the park. Just this weekend I enjoyed sitting on one of the stage benches and watching my toddler daughter play while I talked to a friend. My wife and I looked forward this winter to doing some sledding on the playground hill, without having to drive a few miles to the next toddler usable sledding location.

    I am disappointed with the city and alderman, many of which I know personally as a long time Evanston resident, that this is being considered. Shame on you.

  2. What We’ll Lose

    I live two blocks from Penny Park and very much want to see it preserved or rebuilt the way it is — as a space in which children of different ages and abilities play together and as a space that fosters imaginative and open-ended play. I'm new to the neighborhood, so I'm not motivated by nostalgia so much as I by my observations playing in the park with my 5 year old son over the past six months. This playground is remarkably different from all the other playgrounds around us and it makes different sorts of play and interactions possible. It is one of the only places where I see my son interact with children who are much older or much younger than him. One day last week he played with a 2 year old girl who wasn't very steady on her feet, and the next day he played with two disabled teenagers. Children are, more and more, segregated by age and ability and I don't believe that this prepares them well for a world that is full of difference. This park is a training ground for citizenship, but it is also a play space that allows children to be inventive, explorative, and to test their abilities. If it is rebuilt as a age-segregated play space that is designed for good sight lines and easy access by adults we will be losing many of the qualities that make it uniquely valuable. There are many playgrounds in the area that resemble the proposed redesign, but there is nothing like the current play structure.

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