Playground to be in full swing by June

The end may finally be in sight for the weary combatants who have spent the past six years battling over the construction of an accessible playground in Oriole Park.

Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow says the city has responded to his request to finish building the new playground by the end of June.

“I believe that they’re working very hard to meet the deadline,” Matlow said, remaining aware that many community members are still frustrated with how long the project has taken to reach completion.

“They’ll believe it when they see it,” he added.

The Neshama playground was originally slated for completion last year, but construction delays pushed that back to spring of this year.

The city’s supervisor of capital projects, Dave Nosella is worried the contractor still won’t be able to meet the June deadline because persistent rain has delayed landscaping, but says they are holding out hope.

The Neshama project is the brainchild of a group of executives who call themselves “A Bunch of Guys”, who formed a public-private partnership with the city in 2005 with the help of then-councillor Michael Walker.

The idea of a playground inclusive of disabled children was the brainchild of Tom Caldwell and Steve Skurka while on a plane from Toronto to New York.

Oriole Park, the location the group chose, already had a playground, washroom and wading pool, which had to be replaced to make the site accessible.

City council authorized the group to receive donations in July 2005 when it promised to raise $1 million, which the city pledged to match.

However, not everyone has welcomed Neshama with open arms. A group of community members called Friends of Oriole Park has protested the project as they say the city went ahead without properly consulting local residents.

Caldwell says he can’t understand why anyone would object to what he says is upgrading the park with better equipment for children with special needs.

He thinks the Friends’ members are being selfish, and says they delayed the project and hindered fundraising.

“We are not building an oil refinery behind their house,” he says. “They tried to paint us as evildoers trying to push a park on them.”

But Matlow thinks the picture Caldwell is painting isn’t accurate either.

“For many people it felt like there was a sales job done, which (they) felt was manipulative,” Matlow says.

He added that the community was unhappy with its opportunities to contribute to the plans, which consisted of three public workshops and a public meeting to announce the Neshama design in 2009.

While aware of the community’s objections, city staff said they didn’t see any shortcomings in the discussion process.

“I think the consulting team did an excellent job, above and beyond what we would normally do,” Nosella said.

On top of that, the Friends of Oriole Park says the city didn’t adequately research the suitability of their park, choosing it because that’s what the donors agreed to fund.

While the city did go through a selection process, Alex Shevchuk, acting supervisor of planning initiatives, says the parks department simply doesn’t have enough staff to evaluate park usage.

“If we know more about our parks that leads to better decision-making,” he acknowledges. “There are no resources to do that, sadly.”

Whether botched or not, that decision was made long ago, and Nosella says the community should be trying to mend fences.

“What’s done is done,” he says. “We’re trying to look forward.”

In that spirit, Matlow formed the Oriole Park Neighbourhood Group soon after being elected to city council last October.

He said he hopes the group will provide a place for community members to discuss issues like the Neshama playground constructively, even if they don’t see eye to eye.

2 thoughts on “Playground to be in full swing by June

  • Parkuser

    Alex Shevchuk has highlighted an important point in stressing that the City does not have enough staff to evaluate park usage. “If we know more about our parks, that leads to better decision-making,” he acknowledges. “There are no resources to do that, sadly.”

    Yet decisions made in a void of understanding park usage lead to wasted funds and damaged parkland.

    And here in lies the critical importance of community involvement.

    Mr Calwell states that it was “selfish” on the part of the community to want to be involved and to question his private group’s proposal of how our public park should be made accessible. Perhaps he now regrets spending $150,000 of donated funds on park plans, made without consultation of any kind with any of our local disability groups or neighbourhood members.

    However well-intentioned his initiative may have been, we didn’t need to lose our tennis courts and open green space to increase the playground area 5 times and we certainly didn’t need to pave fifteen new parking spaces over the grass, potentially compromising the trees along Frobisher. Oriole Park is a small neighbourhood park, something Mr Calwell’s group seem to have missed when considering their project.

    Much went wrong in the initial phase of the Oriole Park playground project. A good deal of money was wasted on planning in a void of understanding the park, its usage and the community it serves. I believe that the City has seen how involving the community in the process allowed for the kind of changes to the initial plan that will ultimately insure that the final product is a success for children and families of all abilities.

  • ParkFriend18

    One point the article did not touch on is the fact that one of the major reasons why construction of the playground is so late is because of the failure of Mr. Caldwell and his bunch of guys to come up with the promised funds. For years Mr. Caldwell promised to raise $1.0 million but at the end of the day in late 2010 he only contributed $572,000 towards playground construction; and because City funding was to be on a matching basis this left a hole of about $1.0 million in the construction budget. The original budget was to be $2.35 miilion made up of $1.0 million from Mr. Caldwell with $1.0 million matched by the City plus $350,000 of Section 37 funds. The actual construction budget, according to Brenda Patterson GM of Parks,Recreation and Forestry was $1,341,700.
    Because of the failure of A Bunch of Guys to raise $1.0 million as promised, the City had to change the community approved playground design before construction could start. As a result of this, the original deadline for completion, which was Dec 2010, is now end-June/early July. And yes, we have had some weather delays; but the real delay was the failure of A Bunch of Guys to deliver the funds as promised.
    On top of that the City had to provide additional funds which were not on a matching basis just to save the new playground. So, in the end, the taxpayers had to bail out Mr. Caldwell and his rich friends from Forest Hill. And for this, we the residents of Deer Park still have to put up with the whinning and complaining from Mr. Caldwell who tries to blame anybody but himself for the disaster that is behind the new playground.

    Can you imaging that the head of a big Toronto investment firm actually blames his failure on residents from another neighbourhood!!

    So Mr. Caldwell, here is a deal. Why don’t you stop complaining and stay in Forest Hill; and we will try to help the City make sure our children don’t loose another summer without a playground.

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