Wonderworks, the 26 year old community-built playground sits on the site of Woodstock Primary School off of Levon Helm Boulevard, nestled in the trees. It’s been an attraction for children of all ages, but is now scheduled to be replaced by a more modern set of playground apparatus this summer, in a plan that has been in the works for years, but has recently come under attack from local parents and community members who worked on it in the beginning.
The reason for its replacement? According to school officials, the 26 year old playground was intended to last 25 years, the wood is causing children to get splinters; it contains arsenic, has limited visibility for monitoring children and is not accessible to those who are disabled.
But when the computer models of the new playground were presented in June, a revolt appeared and a group calling itself Save Wonderworks gathered close to 600 signatures, and is now calling for a halt to its demolition, instead seeking renovation. Its supporters include Michael Lang, Amy Helm and former Woodstock Elementary Principal Raymond Haberski. Lang wrote in an email, “The Wonderworks playground embodies the spirit of artistic expression and individuality that drew me to Woodstock. It should be preserved at all costs.” A Save Wonderworks Facebook page has been collecting testimonials from past students but has engendered controversy with both sides accusing the other of censorship and verbal abuse.
Parent Jesse Shadoan and others from Save Wonderworks group met with Playground Committee members and school officials on Tuesday, June 30, seeking common ground. Shadoan said he contacted the Wonderworks design company, Leathers and Associates, and was told that Wonderworks could be restored, be made ADA (American for Disabilities Act) complaint, with the wood replaced or covered at an approximate cost of $145,000.
Onteora voters in 2014 approved $350,000 for upgrades of the playgrounds at Woodstock and Phoenicia primary schools. Of that amount, $179,636.52 is earmarked for Woodstock’s playground “It’s a win/win and we could keep some version of the playground,” said Shadoan. But he said school officials showed an “unwillingness to compromise,” countering that it was just too late. Shadoan said that there appeared to be a “closed door” feel to how the decisions evolved. “Some feel that decisions should be made by a small committee, instead of a public forum,” he said.
But Onteora officials said the information was out there for the public to weigh in, through the schools, media and budget season. The replacement of Wonderworks was explained in the 2014 and 2015 budget newsletter.
“In no way do we ever mean or intend to diminish the wonderful community effort that went into building this playground,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business and Interim Superintendent Victoria McLaren, in a separate interview.
Buildings and Grounds director Jared Mance added that “We want to recreate that and that is why we had a community build and take part in the community process.” The building of the new playground by the community is scheduled for August 21 and 22. Woodstock Principal Scott Richards is asking for volunteers to sign up through, woodstockplayground.com.
A fortress with nooks and crannies
One large complaint appears to be over the aesthetic quality of the proposed new playground, noting it’s bland generic look with little thought put into a community design. “Woodstock is a special place, it represents freedom of expression, Wonderworks represents those values,” Shadoan said.
Architect Curry Rinzler, who was involved with the original community build of Wonderworks in 1989, and is currently on the facilities committee, was involved with choosing the new playground. He believes Wonderworks should come down and by choosing Parkitect, a Lansing, NY, “full-service design/build firm specializing in community-built play environments,” Rinzler believes it’s a step in not only future design, but provides better physical activity for children. “Playground design has gone away from that (Wonderworks) and is more fitness oriented,” Rinzler said.
He described Wonderworks as more of a “fortress,” with nooks and crannies, instead of open space, climbing materials and a track that wraps around the playground. “I understand why people get emotional about Wonderworks, but we wanted to come up with something better than what was there.”
Bobbi Schnell, Woodstock Principal during most of the new playground planning time, now retired and currently a member of the School Board said the formal research for a new playground began around 2010. “One of our main concerns,” Schnell said, “is besides the fact that it had a 25 year lifespan and everybody involved knew that, we wanted something that was much more open, we wanted to spread the equipment around and have smaller pieces so there was greater visibility with health and safety.”
Current Woodstock school principal Scott Richards echoed the sentiment. “The group that was designing it, a big part of our discussion was site lines, being able to see the children,” he said. “There are currently a lot of spots they can go in, hide and be out of sight. We are responsible for watching them, insuring their safety.”
One state mandate that went into effect in 2003 says that CCA, the chemical used to keep wood from rotting in Wonderworks, is no longer allowed in schools or on equipment of any kind including playgrounds.
Mance said the new equipment will be made of a combination of rubber, recycled plastic and steel. Parkitect boasts it is certified by ISO International environmental standards with a 30 percent less carbon footprint. The new playground will be accessible for the disabled as required by law. “We are taking great strides to make sure this is ADA accessible,” Mance said.
So would the Board of Education and school officials reconsider at the last hour? McLaren said, “At this point, I don’t believe we can. The board approved the contract with this company,” adding that the, “district is obligated to the contract.”
Mance said, “It’s not an option we really considered based on the feedback.”
Save Wonderworks will hold a community potluck at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 4 at Wonderworks Playground at Woodstock Elementary School. They ask that you bring your family and friends, and a dish or nonalcoholic drink to share.