Durham pushes park plans

Flurry of activity in city's play areas

Staff WriterJanuary 22, 2005 

Seesaws that could trap little legs. Swinging ropes that could turn into a noose. An aluminum slide with spokes that poke.

Durham's neighborhood playgrounds, some of the last open areas for playtime that do not come with a Big Mac, pose more of a safety hazard than they should.

In response, the city is busy replacing outdated equipment at playgrounds, as well as building new parks and unrolling thick slabs of Bermuda grass sod on athletic fields to keep pace with demand, more than a year after a study found that most city recreational areas weren't meeting basic public needs.

City parks planner Beth Timson admits that the equipment in many of the city's 64 parks is "not state of the art." But she said it's unlikely to cause serious injury.

"If it was unsafe, all of us who were on it would have never grown up," she said.

Since the city released its draft parks and recreation master plan in September of 2003, parks officials have built one new park -- Cook Road Park in South Durham -- renovated River Forest and Whippoorwill parks, and upgraded heating systems at three recreation centers.

The number of ongoing projects, however, is staggering financially: three parks under construction, five more in the design phases, four community playgrounds undergoing renovations, seven refurbished athletic fields to open by the fall, two pool upgrades and new recreation centers in North/East Central Durham and Walltown that are still in the planning stages.

All told, the cost to the city is budgeted at more than $42.5 million, to be funded with leftover 1996 bond money, the city's capital improvement budget, impact fees paid by developers and a possible bond issue that would have to be approved by voters.

Already, parks officials have proposed $17.3 million in projects for the coming fiscal year. They are targeting areas experiencing the most growth, at the northern and southern edges of the city. Projects addressing the state's second-oldest parks system range from painting gutters at the administrative office at Lake Michie to constructing the $3.58 million C.M. Herndon Park in southwest Durham.

In meeting with neighborhood groups, Timson said residents generally request more than the city can afford. Inevitably, there are compromises, such as forgoing a freestanding climbing wall for an all-in-one play structure with colorful twisty slides, tunnels and bars with protective coating.

Cheryl Sweeney, president of the Northgate Park Neighborhood Association, said she was pleased that the city would be overhauling equipment where her two children romp and catch frogs in pails. Today, the park on West Club Boulevard is dark at all hours, she said, with cracked wooden teeter-totters, picnic shelters defaced with gang graffiti and condoms strewn on bathroom floors.

But Sweeney wasn't sure she could support bonds if they are put before voters in a referendum in November.

"Personally, I don't feel like the city has proven to me that if given more money they're really going to spend it the most effective way possible," she said.

Since 1990, voters have approved more than $23.5 million in parks and greenway bonds, but construction delays and the volume of projects made it difficult for parks officials to spend all the money on time, Timson said. Now, the city is on track to having all the money committed by June.

Timson said much of the old-fashioned park equipment needs to be replaced because it doesn't meet federal safety guidelines and accessibility regulations for people with disabilities. At Lyon Park, for instance, there is a rusted semi-circular climbing bar that arches 6 feet off the ground. Grant Street Park features a rotting log cabin. Cornwallis Road Park doesn't have a playground at all.

One of the worst on Timson's list is Morreene Road Park, with four shredded basketball hoops, a defunct water fountain and an abandoned plywood "safety village," initially erected as part of a police program to encourage traffic safety among children. Today, the half-destroyed village is used by skateboarders to practice half-pipes. The park, across the street from the Chapel Tower apartments, is slated to benefit from $125,000 in improvements.

Staff writer Margie Fishman can be reached at 956-2405 or mfishman@newsobserver.com.

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