Fight brews over Riverside Park playground gear

New London - There's a fight a-brewing at Riverside Park, the long-neglected city park that was almost sold to the Coast Guard Academy two years ago.

Plastic playground equipment is dividing those who once stood side by side to keep the 18-acre park open to the public.

A contingent of residents who spoke passionately and often against the sale, is now behind a movement to relocate used playground equipment there. On the other side, are those who fought equally as hard to save the park but want to finish a study of the park - and the surrounding area - before deciding what to put on the grounds.

"A lot of people worked very hard to save this park,'' Wayne Vendetto said Monday during a City Council committee meeting. "I can't wait to see the best possible playscape possible at Riverside Park. But plans take money and plans take time. We need a playscape now."

The city has some equipment that is at portable classrooms on Cedar Grove Avenue, which are no longer in use. The plastic equipment could be moved to Riverside, where rusted metal swings and seesaws were taken down two years ago. The Public Works Department has estimated the project would cost about $56,000. Vendetto maintains the cost could be far less.

Cathi Strother, whose property borders the park, wants to hold off on improvements until after New London Landmarks completes its study. And there is already a playground at nearby Winthrop School, she said, which neighbors now use.

"We want a playscape, but not yet,'' said Strother, who is secretary of Riverside Park Conservancy. "Our goal is to have a unique play area."

On Monday, the Education, Parks & Recreation Committee asked the Parks and Recreation Commission to look into the playground equipment debate and report back. They also asked the commission to look at lowering the cost of the project.

"I'm worried if we delay this issue, we won't have a playscape in the park for years,'' said Councilor Anthony Nolan, chairman of the Education, Parks & Recreation Committee. "I'm for that park getting a playscape as soon as possible."

"You're only 6 years old for one year,'' agreed Councilor Donald Macrino.

Sandra Chalk, executive director of Landmarks, said her group is discussing all kinds of ideas for the park and questioned if the city should be spending money it doesn't have. A meeting is expected to be held Feb. 13 at Winthrop School to discuss the project.

"We want something that will bring people to the park. Something unique,'' she said Monday. But she added that if the city can find the "right spot" for the playground "perhaps they can put something in right away."

Kathleen Mitchell, who quit the Riverside Conservancy months ago after a difference of opinion with other members on the future of the park, wants the city to act immediately.

"There are still thousands of families and children who want a playscape, now,'' she told the council last week. "The city has spent a million dollars on a Bates Woods parking lot and more on Calkins Park. All Riverside is asking for is a lousy used playscape."

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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