Monday, April 24, 2000

With the arrival of spring, parents are coming to realize that more likely than not their neighborhood playground is missing something: play equipment. The D.C. Department of Recreation has once again embarked on a well-intentioned but flawed mission to bring playground equipment into “compliance” with national Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines.

The Washington Times is the only major newspaper to have reported The Department of Recreation’s actions. Rather than repair equipment, the Department removed it. Many playgrounds are now in “compliance” because they have been destroyed. No ward has been spared. Playgrounds are left awaiting replacements with no plan for when.

Right before Christmas, parents in Forest Hills found this out. This playground was much used and much beloved, and the community had raised the funds to erect it in 1990. But on Dec. 15, the site was flattened.

A parent wrote: “The community was not given the opportunity to discuss the playground plans of what (if anything) needed to be done to bring the equipment up to code. Had we been given the chance we could have raised the infinitely lesser amount of money it would cost to make these adjustments than it will cost to build another whole playground.”

It’s happened in Shaw. A parent writes about the Kennedy Playground at 7th and P: “The level of frustration throughout the community is extremely high.” Not only was everything removed last fall, but the Department of Recreation has told folks it is unlikely that replacement will begin until 2001. At Turkey Thicket, Michigan Park residents have been pressing for months to find out what’s going on. Adams Morgan residents organized a Friends of Walter Pierce Park, which was stripped last year. “We were told that we won’t have a playground this spring unless we in the community help to buy it ourselves,” writes one activist. When the Department of Recreation failed to provide promised funding, the Friends group mounted an emergency fund-raising campaign to raise $63,500 to get replacement playground equipment soon. This is not the way it should happen. According to a report in The Washington Times (“Six City Playgrounds Still Wait for Arrival of New Equipment,” April 8), last fall’s programmed destruction will cost $2 million.

Three years ago the Department of Recreation promised me when my own neighborhood park was demolished that from then on communities would be notified well in advance, that the Department of Recreation would be careful to remove only equipment beyond repair, and that plans for replacement would be developed jointly and timely so that new equipment could arrive promptly. These promises were not kept. Even the new director admits: “I have no regret of our efforts to remove unsafe equipment from our playgrounds. That was the right thing to do. But, I do regret a communications breakdown between the agency and our residents.” Now I’ve demanded that these promises be put in writing.

There are three basic ingredients to maintaining safe playgrounds: (1) a professional safety evaluation; (2) adequate notice to the community that allows for collaboration; and (3) a timely replacement plan. Safety ought to be achieved through a reliable and consistent process. Currently, play equipment removals are based on vague inspection criteria that fail to utilize the National Playground Safety Institute’s nationally recognized hazard rating system. Equipment is condemned because it is “old,” or “obsolete” or “wood.” I even found inspection forms that condemned items because “the equipment is metal.” These are vague standards. There is no evaluation of whether repairs can be made.

More remarkably, the Department of Recreation undertook last fall’s inspections on a crash basis as many as 18 sites in one day from Kalorama, to Fort Stevens, to Edgewood, to Barry Farms and 14 in between by a single inspector. I can tell you, as a politician who visits precincts on election day, that it is not possible to do this especially on a short November day. These were not quality inspections. I have asked the Department of Recreation to use a more detailed inspection form which utilizes objective criteria such as the national hazard ratings. I have urged the department to be more cost-effective and repair equipment when feasible instead of simply ripping it out and sending it to an early grave.

This practice alone can save the department badly needed funds without compromising safety. It is also less traumatic to the community. I have asked the Department of Recreation to write up a policy for community notice that allows for collaboration. It must cooperate, especially when it has a policy to encourage “friends of” groups that raise money for these playgrounds. Some of these groups raise tens of thousands of dollars.

Don’t rip out equipment without working first with these friends. This advice seems obvious. But it hasn’t happened despite three years of promises. The community (i.e., the friends groups, ANC, civic association and playground users) must be given adequate notice when their playground is to be demolished, and given ample opportunity to develop a replacement plan jointly with the department.

This should not be a problem if the Department of Recreation doesn’t wait until their playgrounds have deteriorated beyond repair. Finally, if the Department of Recreation ensures timely notice and a collaborative process, then the third ingredient of a good playground maintenance program a timely replacement plan will automatically fall into place. Three years ago, after getting burned in my neighborhood, the Department of Recreation tried to replicate its mistake at another playground called Turtle Park. But department officials paused, met with the community and came to an agreement as to what would be removed, when and how it would be replaced. Voila. The replacement plan was in place before the demolition.

The Department of Recreation should never strip playgrounds without new equipment in stock. When all is said and done, I know we all want to build and maintain safe playgrounds for our children. It can be done. It’s just that the Department of Recreation needs to listen better and work with its patrons.

Phil Mendelson is member-at-large of the D.C. City council.

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