CB7 Endorses “Flagship” Redesign of All-Inclusive UWS Playground

An aerial rendering of Bloomingdale Playground at West 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue after its sweeping redesign. NYC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION
An aerial rendering of Bloomingdale Playground at West 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue after its sweeping redesign. | NYC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION

BY JACKSON CHEN | A sweeping redesign of the Upper West Side’s Bloomingdale Playground easily cleared Community Board 7, with unanimous support for what board members hailed as a “flagship” example of play space for kids of all ages and abilities.

The Department of Parks and Recreation was given a $5.8 million budget to create a “universal design” for the park at West 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue that aims to foster inclusivity among users of all physical capabilities.

“[We] were just very concerned with making sure this is not just an accessible and inclusive park,” Ricardo Hinkle, a parks department landscape architect, said. “But that everything be something that children with disabilities can play in and the children be able to play together.”

Parks teased a draft rendering and design during Community Board 7’s Inclusive Playground Task Force meeting on July 25. After hearing several suggested revisions, the department then tweaked the design, which won unanimous support from both the task force and CB7’s Health & Human Services Committee on August 23 — setting the tone for the full board meeting on September 6, where it was similarly approved.

“What’s most impressive from my perspective is that Parks isn’t just saying this is a universally designed playground,” Catherine DeLazzero, co-chair of CB7’s Health & Human Services Committee and coordinator of the task force, said. “But they’re able to articulate how their design choices meet the specific goals of universal design.”

In designing the park from the ground up, the parks department said, it was able to look at each piece of equipment and the overall layout to make sure it was usable by everyone. According to the design, the swing set will accommodate tots with a bucket swing, but also children with disabilities with accessible swings. The park also incorporates audible and tactile elements as part of its play areas and signage that will be in English, Spanish, and Braille.

The centerpiece of the park is an elevated play structure that forms a figure eight-like pathway that’s fully accessible by users in wheelchairs. And after hearing comments at the August 23 meeting, the parks department expanded the performance space in the turf field adjacent to the basketball courts and introduced sturdier pull-up and parallel bars, with two different heights, in the adult fitness area.

“In addition to making this a universal design playground, we are adding so many more recreational opportunities,” Steve Simon, the parks department’s Manhattan chief of staff, said. “Far more than what exists in the current playground, so this is in incredible improvement over what exists today.”

A schematic details the offering the revamped park will offer. | NYC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION
A schematic details the offering the revamped park will offer. | NYC DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION

Mel Wymore, a transgender man who is a CB7 board member, urged Parks to put more effort into creating what he said would be an appropriate gender-neutral bathroom option for gender nonconforming youth.

“This is an inclusive playground, it’s a flagship playground, and to not include these children would be a huge travesty,” Wymore said.

He suggested a comfort station that would include male, female, and gender-neutral sections.

“When I transitioned, the biggest challenge I had in my life was to find a bathroom that I would feel comfortable going in,” Wymore said. “If I were to take 40 years off my life and be a five-year-old feeling that, it would make a huge difference for me to be able to go to a safe place.”

The problem the parks department faces from Wymore’s suggestion is that the gender-neutral bathroom would be single-user and require that the door could be locked, something at odds with city regulations. Officials told Wymore that they are awaiting guidance from Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver on that question.

Sheldon Fine, a board member who sits on the Inclusive Playground Task Force, underscored the importance that appropriate signage will have in the redesigned park.

“When people enter, they should know this is an inclusive playground and what that means,” Fine said. “The signage should be throughout in English, Spanish, and Braille, and that it should talk about how to use the space so it is collaborative, so it isn’t just nice things that people do separately.

He also urged that the parks department not allow sports league usage permits at the new Bloomingdale Playground, arguing that oftentimes leagues reserving park space leaves others excluded.

Parents, especially those with kids of mixed abilities, voiced gratitude about the city designing an inclusive park and hope that the new park raises the bar for future playground designs.

“There aren’t that many places or opportunities where our whole family and both my children can fully participate in an activity together,” Jodi Fischer, a mother of two sons, one of whom has multiple disabilities. “When an opportunity arises, it’s really a very heartwarming experience.”

Fischer, who’s been contributing suggestions throughout as a part of the task force, added that she is ecstatic that the neighborhood she’s been living in for more than nine years is at the forefront of introducing this new all-inclusive playground model.

With the green light from CB7, the parks department’s redesign now proceeds to winning approval from the Public Design Commission, after which roughly a year of construction begins in 2017.