Parks and Recreation Board votes to rehabilitate rather than redesign Penny Park

Robin Opsahl, Reporter

Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Board unanimously voted last week to formally recommend City Council decide to rehabilitate Penny Park to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards rather than demolish the park’s current design.

The vote follows months of debate between the city and residents over the redesign of Penny Park, 1500 Lake St., and whether to preserve the original wooden design or replace it with a brand new plastic playplace.

Lauren Barski, who founded a website advocating for keeping the park’s original layout, said last week’s meeting was a victory. The website, Preserve Penny Park, also advocates for community involvement in the park’s redesign.

“We’re extremely happy about the recommendations the Parks board decided on,” Barski said. “When we have concerned residents turnout at every meeting, it shows how important this is to us. I think that’s what helped them come to a unanimous decision.”

City Council requested further discussion from the Parks and Recreation board after hearing opposition to the schematics drawn up by Leathers & Associates, the firm hired to renovate Penny Park. Because the current park needs to be updated in compliance with ADA standards, Leathers & Associates proposed renovating the park by demolishing the wooden playground and replacing it with a plastic playground as well as adding restrooms and a pavilion.

Community members objected to the proposed changes, especially demolishing the wooden playground, Barski said. To express their opinions, she said she formed Preserve Penny Park to rally Evanston residents to work toward keeping Penny Park as it is.

The Parks and Recreation Board president Daniel Stein said the board tried to make sure the conversation around Penny Park was inclusive of community members.

“We tried to make our discussions about Penny Park as transparent as possible,” Stein said. “So that all stakeholders have a voice in the process.”

The board recommended to redesign instead of demolish the current playground and cancel the contract with Leathers & Associates, but City Council will make the final decision on the issue.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said he supports the recommendation that the board made and is glad the board had a chance to discuss the issue in more detail.

“People felt like they were left out of the conversation at first, so it was important that the subsequent conversations happened,” Wilson said. “It was the right thing for City Council to take a step back to listen and look at the whole thing.”

Wilson said there is still a lot to discuss among aldermen, such as the cost of renovating the playground and the contract with Leathers & Associates. However, he said he is glad the conversation includes more community input this time around.

“It is obviously a much loved park,” Wilson said. “A lot of people came out to support it…. Even though it’s bad they felt excluded at first, it was important for their opinions to get expressed in full.”

Barski, said advocates for the park plan to attend the council meeting in support of the board’s recommendations.

“City Council was making decisions out of sync with the community,” Barski said. “City Council has the benefit of more accurate and thorough information now than a year ago. We hope that they take the recommendation to heart and that they vote to adopt it in its entirety.”

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