The physical scars of construction are finally leaving Neshama playground in Oriole Park, but the emotional ones still linger.
At a meeting at Christ Church Deer Park on June 22, community members learned that the controversial accessible playground was slated to open July 1 after being in limbo for the past six years.
About 60 people attended the gathering organized by Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow in an effort to foster community dialogue and involvement.
“I want you to be members of the decision-making process, and that’s what we’re starting here tonight,” Matlow told the meeting’s attendees.
The Neshama playground is the result of a public-private partnership between the city and a group of executives calling themselves “A Bunch of Guys.”
It was supposed to be a groundbreaking model of accessibility for disabled children in the city.
But the community group Friends of Oriole Park says that “A Bunch of Guys” went ahead without properly consulting the community and local accessibility groups, or securing funding.
“It was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning,” says Ulli Rath, the interim president of Friends of Oriole Park, which counts about 350 supporters according to Rath.
The animated 64-year-old mining executive takes his seven grandchildren for annual Easter egg hunts in the park, so he says it holds a personal connection. He’s lived in the neighbourhood with his wife, Carol, an artist, for eight years.
In particular, Rath says “A Bunch of Guys” failed to raise the $1 million they’d promised and that the city had agreed to match, narrowing the total budget and delaying the project.
Rath says that by late 2010, the private group had only raised $572,000 of their share, but the city records the final amount of the contribution as $722,000 — still below the amount pledged.
Investment advisor Tom Caldwell of “A Bunch of Guys” blamed that on what he called the selfishness of the Friends of Oriole Park group, because he said some donors backed out when they realized the community was divided about the project.
But Rath says Caldwell’s group had plenty of time to raise funds before the community found out about the project, as Caldwell proposed it to the city in 2005, while the first of three workshops for public input was held in 2009.
Residents at the meeting said the lack of community voice in deciding the project wouldn’t be forgotten.
Delays were another source of frustration.
The city’s supervisor of capital projects, Dave Nosella, said these were due to the project coming in over budget, the city awarding the contract when construction industry prices were inflated, and weather problems.
The washroom renovation was another point of contention, with some residents questioning why such an expensive component was included if the budget was a stretch.
Although Nosella joined the project after the planning stage was finished, he acknowledged the washroom could have been simpler.
But he said it needed to be redone because it was in poor condition.
“It’s quite beautiful for a washroom,” he offered, facing scepticism from the attendees.
“(It’s) the Taj Mahal,” Rath volunteered in response, prompting laughter.
Rath came to the meeting prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, proposing that the TTC should convert two acres of the Davisville Yards into parkland.
However, the TTC’s Virginia Dabrus said that while the yards may look underused, all of the land is required for future maintenance and storage of the new Red Rocket subway cars.
Though Friends of Oriole Park is still disappointed with the process of building the new playground, their new focus on expanding the park means they are trying to put its bitter history behind them.
“There’s still an awful lot of anger and resentment in the community about this, but it’s not quite as intense as it has been,” Rath says.
“I want to put this behind us, and it’s slowly happening.”
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