By Seth Nidever- Public criticism of changes to the handicapped-accessible playground at Freedom Park dominated the Hanford City Council meeting this week.
Nine people stood up during the public comment period to say that the rubberized, cushioned surface around the playground equipment should remain rather than be replaced by cheaper wood chips.
Freedom Park is on 9 1/4 Avenue in northeastern Hanford.
The cushioned rubber was installed when the playground, dubbed Endless Dreams, was installed in 2007 specifically to accommodate children with disabilities and their family members.
The matting was designed not only to cushion falls, but also to create a smooth surface for people with wheelchairs, braces and walkers.
City workers had begun the process last week of replacing the worn-out rubber surface with a layer of wood chips, but the work was put on hold after complaints from local residents who say the wood chips don’t work for people with walkers or wheelchairs.
“If there is bark, they won’t be able to make use of the equipment there,” Juli Polder, an occupational therapist, told the council on Tuesday night.
“There are other places where we can save the money,” Hanford resident Leonard Dias said. “We have got to figure out how to keep it the way it is right now.”
The matter is expected to come up for further discussion at the next council meeting on April 5. Until then, the playground remains fenced off and closed.
If the council decides to put in new rubber matting, it won’t be cheap.
Parks Superintendent Alvin Dias said in an interview that ripping up the matting and the concrete under it, then putting in a layer of 12-inch-deep wood chips would cost $20,000 to $30,000.
He said the city received a cost estimate of $120,000 to $125,000 for a new rubber surface.
Due to normal wear and deterioration, Dias said it needs to be replaced every seven to 10 years.
Dias said the wood chip project was part of a capital improvement plan approved by the parks and recreation commission and the City Council in 2014.
The project was likely one of more than a dozen projects included in the overall plan that council members voted on.
Dias said there was no argument from commissioners or council members.
“Sometimes, projects get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “I can’t say for sure what the reason was.”
Dias said the wood chip surface, which has been installed beneath playground equipment at other Hanford parks, meets legal requirements for disabled access.
“We thought we were making the right choice by saving money,” Dias said.
Reached by phone, Chris Soares, a leader in the original drive to get the playground built, said the whole playground — including the rubber matting — was paid for through private donations.
Soares said she researched other surfaces by visiting playgrounds around California and concluded that they wouldn’t work.
“Any type of surface that shifts would cause disabled people to have problems,” she said.
“Basically, that playground was free [for the city],” said Soares, who also spoke at the council meeting Tuesday night. “This would be the first cost they would have to put into the playground. That’s what I wanted them to understand.”
Another speaker Tuesday night was Hanford resident Karen Stout. Her 23-year-old son, Evan, has cerebral palsy.
Stout said in an interview that Evan couldn’t go to other parks to play when he was younger because of uneven surfaces. By the time Endless Dreams playground opened at Freedom Park, he had already outgrown the play stage.
“Had it been built when he was younger, it would have been accessible for him to play on,” Stout said.
Stout said Evan uses wheelchairs and walkers.
“Basically, if you have the wood chips, you’re not going to be able to push that wheelchair through the wood chips,” said Jennie Thornburg, the family empowerment coordinator at United Cerebral Palsy in Hanford, in an interview.
“I understand the point of saving money, [but] it’s not an area [council members] will want to cut if they want to keep the park accessible to everyone,” Stout said.
Speakers on Tuesday night said that grandparents and the elderly are also able to move freely around on the rubberized surface and interact with the children.
Councilmen David Ayers and Francisco Ramirez said in phone interviews that they would support spending general fund money to maintain the rubber surface.
Mayor Justin Mendes, Councilman Russ Curry and Councilman Gary Pannett couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
“The original proponents thought the rubber was the way to go,” Ayers said. “That’s general fund money we’re going to have to find a way to come up with.”
“If it’s been designed as a special needs park, we need to keep it that way,” Ramirez said. “I’m going to be fully supportive.”