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.
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