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Clearwater is tearing down playgrounds

CLEARWATER

Emily Cook took her 6-month-old daughter, Mira, to the Plaza Park playground twice a week on weekends. She moved to North Greenwood in July to be close to the Pennsylvania Avenue park.

Mira loved riding on Cook's chest as she swung on the swing set.

"I get up every day and face a new life as a single mom," Cook, 27, wrote in a letter to the city, "because of that smile."

But this month, with about a week's notice, city crews dismantled the playground. All that was left was an open space for sod.

Consider it one of the latest victims of the stalled economy. Instead of repairing or replacing playgrounds, the city of Clearwater, strapped by budget cuts, is tearing them down.

Nine of the city's 34 playgrounds were destroyed within the last five years, city records show. Five more are scheduled for demolition by 2019.

City parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar would not talk to the Times about this issue. But in a City Council meeting this month, he defended the demolition of the Plaza Park playground as a safety measure.

The playground equipment was 17 years old — past a playground's "typical lifespan" of 12 to 15 years, city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said. Replacing it would have cost between $50,000 and $75,000.

The North Greenwood Recreation Center is only half a mile away — within the city's policy of keeping a playground within one mile of every home in the city.

But Nancy Collinsworth, who lives near Plaza Park, told the council that was still too far for some of the women in the low-income neighborhood. Some of them lack transportation, she said.

"I know this is not making people happy, and this is not necessarily something we want to do," Mayor Frank Hibbard told Collinsworth. "It is just simply a sign of the times."

The demolished playgrounds range from Ed Wright Park in South Greenwood to Country Hollow Park in north Countryside. Last year, three playgrounds were destroyed, at Northwood Park, Cherry Harris Park and the Countryside Library.

Playgrounds are inspected for about an hour every week by three city workers certified to check for wear and tear. Demolishing the playgrounds once they reach between 12 and 15 years old is intended to protect children from injury and the city from liability.

But John Damyanovich, a 15-year certified playground safety inspector and founder of the Arizona-based inspection company Playground Police, said regularly checked playgrounds can remain safe and sturdy for up to 30 years or more.

When a playground does need repair, he added, replacing pieces individually, instead of demolishing, is a more widely accepted way of keeping the playgrounds intact.

"As long as you're maintaining it, and as long as it fits within the guidelines," Damyanovich said, "there's no reason to tear it down."

The cost to repair the playgrounds is unclear. One city employee, in an internal e-mail in July, said Plaza Park would need replacements of a few playground decks and a set of steps, costing up to $8,500.

This week, the next two playgrounds on the chopping block did not appear rusty, dysfunctional or in severe need of repair.

The playground at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center is scheduled for demolition this year, though Castelli said this week the city would likely wait until it deteriorated further before tearing it down. The playground equipment at Coachman Ridge Park, which looks almost brand new, is scheduled for demolition in 2013.

Bill Beckner, research manager for the National Recreation and Park Association, said Clearwater is not unique in tearing down playgrounds due to tight budgets. But he said a one-mile radius seemed excessive, and that the common standard is a half-mile.

Cook, the single mother who used to take her daughter to Plaza Park, said this week she didn't know where she would take Mira next. She doesn't feel safe at the next-closest playgrounds, and she worries about traveling too far from home.

"I guess," she said, "I'll have to get a swing set on Craigslist."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater is tearing down playgrounds 09/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 1:00pm]
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