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Third park info session gets rowdy

Adam Bienenstock, Founder of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds, listening to residents last week. GLORIA J. KATCH PHOTO

Only enough funds for basic design, features

BY GLORIA J. KATCH
Special to the VOICE

The third public information gathering session on Weiland Heights and Lookout Street was anything but a serene walk in the park. Local residents attending last Tuesday’s meeting in council chambers left no stone unturned, unearthing endless detailed questions and comments about these two recreational spaces, and their $340,000 budget. Comments even alluded to the tendering process, and while the uniqueness of Bienenstock’s Natural Playground was appreciably top-notch, several in attendance deemed it too expensive.

Starkly opposite to the last information session, there was acrimony among the participants, who at times raised their voices to make contrasting views known. Interim CAO Teresa Quinlin acted as referee, asking residents in the gallery to pipe down, stop talking over each other, and allow founder and principal designer Adam Bienenstock to run the presentation, which lasted more than three hours.

By the end of the session, Bienenstock was back to the drawing board, agreeing to derive a bare bones, “base-line” version of the two parks using as few dollars as possible.

He also said he would provide a two-phase plan, so that fundraising groups, or the Town, could add to the park’s aesthetics and features, like play equipment, and additional shade and gazebos, down the road.

However, Bienenstock pointed out fundraising for play equipment can be a bit of a bumpy road, as there are not many funders or grantors available for these extras, or as he later described it, “the cool and fun things.”

Despite the many comments and suggestions, Bienenstock said anyone with additional comments could email him, or post the information on the municipal website within the week. While his company has provided ample time in the information-gathering sessions to obtain input from the residents, he told the Voice after the session there may have to be another information session and a meeting with the Town before the final plans are brought to council for approval.

After many years of experience and leading hundreds of information sessions, Bienenstock saw the information session as “positive,” despite any divisiveness, or “upsetting everyone equally,” he said, chuckling. To date, through email, phone calls and in person, they have received about 300 comments.

Throwing a proverbial wrench into the discussion, was a man who identified himself only as a representative from Mountainview Homes, and asserted that Mountainview spent $1.5 million dollars as a part of the development costs to the Town, which were to have been allocated to parks and recreation.

When asked if this figure was correct, Barb Wiens, Director of Planning and Development, told the Voice it would take considerable research to determine if this was accurate, because the development in that area was initially planned about 15 years ago. However, she said there were about 300 lots in that area, and subdivisions were constructed by more than one construction company, including Mountainview.

Developers, according to the Planning Act, have to pay 5% of the total development costs to the Town for parkland. Several companies in this case paid the Town by offering land equal to the required value, as well as cash.

In the case of Lookout, 2.28% was donated in land value, with 2.72% in cash. With Weiland Heights, about 3.12% was donated in land with about 1.84% of it in cash, Wiens said. Regardless of what money is allocated, it’s Town Council’s perogative to use that cash towards developing any parks and playgrounds in Pelham—not just those in a given subdivision.

Wiens said any employee of Mountainview Homes should be knowledgeable of this process, and deemed the comment as “irresponsible.”

As to whether a parcel of this land donated towards Lookout or Weiland Heights can be sold to obtain additional funding to develop these parks, Weins said council will have to approve that decision.

“We’re just following things that were approved previously,” she said.

While Wiens had another meeting to attend and could not stay for the information-gathering session, she had an opportunity to see Bienenstock’s design specifications. Given the current budget, she said, “the plan provides an opportunity for the Town to move foward. It’s a good plan and we can strive toward it, down the road.”

Adding any features to the park requires the designs be certified and approved by the Canadian Standard Association, and must be from qualified suppliers that meet safety standards, especially playground equipment.

“We have liability that we have to consider,” pointed out Wiens.

However, the $1.5 million dollar comment clearly drew the ire of a few residents at the meeting. One man apologized to Bienenstock, and said while there was animosity over where the funding had been directed, it wasn’t directed personally at him. Another participant admitted that the issue should not pit neighbors, or communities against each other.

One of the gallery participants asked if the Town could provide additional funding toward the park. Mayor Marvin Junkin replied that while the Town just received $725,000 from the province, that money is being allocated for repairing municipal services, and specifically to assist residents with flooding problems, but definitely not the park.

Mary Maida, Fund Development Representative for Community Living in St. Catharines, has a special needs child, whom she is looking forward to taking to a local park that is environmentally appealing to children, and meets the standards of the Association for Ontarians Disabilities Act (AODA). She had recently completed a fundraising project worth $250,000 for a courtyard within the Community Living property in St. Catharines, and offered her assistance in fundraising for the proposed park and playground projects in Pelham.

Bienenstock said everyone can “pick and choose and pull out items” they believe they can obtain cheaper, and that he is willing to consider it. Although he had certain safety standards to meet.

“I’m with the Flintstones,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t matter to me,” referring to the simplicity of the plan. On that note, Bienenstock said after working with Mountainview Homes, he has the advantage of obtaining large boulders/landscaping rocks at an economical price.

The problem Bienenstock shared with the audience is that he has two large areas, and while everyone wants a playground, there is only enough money for a park, at best.

“I need a half a million dollars or more to give you both the parks you need.”

While a few audience members, including resident Cory Ziraldo said they appreciated Bienenstock’s work on this project, all of his aesthetics, such as designed benches carved out of wood, were “custom” made and unaffordable.

Three long bench-type furnishings at Weiland Heights were priced at $11,374. Even the simplified design included planting of confierous trees, and shrubs totalled $15,144, and four granite landscaping rocks at $3,000.

While some cutbacks could be made, Bienenstock noted to complete the basic work including the drainage, grubbing out the land, which requires removing three inches of top soil, grading, adding a granular substance and grass, plus wood chipped pathways alone, takes up the bulk of the budget. While a few residents asked if the Town could do some landscaping work to save costs, Bienenstock said the Town doesn’t have the “processes” to do that, and relies on professionals in this area like his company. The park developer also assumes the liability as well.

“They hold our feet to the fire.”

The slide presentations at the meeting illustrated Bienenstock’s basic concept for Weiland Heights totalled $66,477, while the fancier version was $215,597, which included taxes, but not permit fees.

Lookout Park’s basic concept totalled $325,845, which included four full log benches at $12,788, 50 trees and shrubs at $33,779, and 20 granite stones for $15,000. The ultimate delux design version including nest swings, pavillion, tree forts and accessories, totalled $834,345, with taxes.

According to Bienenstock’s drawings, even the simplified versions of both projects were more than $380,000, which was roughly $40,000 over budget, the latter amount just in taxes. However, Bienenstock said residents may have interpreted the plans incorrectly, as the taxes levied are all returned to the Town. The current designs at the minimal level are roughly $347,000 for the two projects, he said.

“I will re-post the budget with the Town,” he added.

With respect to the features included, Bienenstock said he believed in transparency, which is why the costs are itemized and indicated.

“I have not jacked up the prices,” he said, but admitted there are cheaper ways to provide swings and gazebos and playground equipment. By comparison, Maida said after viewing the costs of the construction in the Community Living project that this project was in-line with reality.

Bienenstock said a few park benches with arm rests have to be added for seating for seniors, and that the public could decide on what type of park benches to install, and how much shade they wanted.

However, while Bienenstock’s approach was democratic—”each person has one vote”—and diplomatic, it was clear not everyone is going to be entirely pleased with the results. His design company has a difficult balancing act, with having to incorporate the needs of both seniors and children, he noted. In many towns and cities, seniors do not “have a social media footprint,” where they align themselves with certain groups or camps. Nonetheless, when considering planning, seniors comprise about 15 to 20% of the community, which has to be accounted for, he pointed out.

Unfortunately the municipality does not have a census on the age groups being served by these parks. Bienenstock’s company had to rely on the data given by Mountainview Homes. Weiland Heights area would likely be frequented by younger children, while Lookout would be attended more by seniors, since there is a retirement home behind it, he said.

The comments bounced from topic to topic.

One man said he didn’t understand the concern over playground equipment.

“I built a $20,000 playground in my own backyard,” and by the time his children reached 11, they just spent all of their times on cellphones.

Other people asked if the Town could possibly remove any remaining construction debris from the ground to make the landscaping less costly. Some residents suggested that trees might be donated, and others suggested E. L. Crossley Secondary School’s woodworking class build the benches for the park. Another suggested they fundraise for the gazebo, which was clearly a big-ticket item. Regardless of what features are chosen, Bienenstock said they would have to be approved and meet safety standards prior to his company installing them.

While some audience members called for one park to be completed with all the features, others said it wasn’t fair to residents living closer, and wanted to use the other designated area. Bienenstock said Weiland Heights would be the most challenging to bring to a “baseline” level. Whether people choose one park or two, Bienenstock said that was out of his control, and that was an issue for council to determine.

In addition to the 60 or so people in the gallery, Barb Wiens noted the Town also received a great deal of email and positive feedback on the topic.

“There are a lot of people who like these designs that we hear from, who don’t show up at these meetings,” she said. We are trying to do the best that we can with the budget,” she added.

From what he gathered from the comments, Bienenstock noticed “three distinct camps” in Pelham, and while not everyone will be completely happy with the plans at this point, “The main thing is that the community has an opportunity to walk in the park this summer, and that has to be completed.”

 

 

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