by Gail Callahan
The Union Elementary School Playground Project got a boost last week after the Montpelier City Council approved a street closure permit for Park Avenue next to the school, paving the way for students to have a safe spot to play when construction on the new playground occurs.
The western portion of Park Avenue will be permanently closed with chain link fences for the school year, which runs from August 29, 2018 until June 21, 2019. Buses will drop off and pick up on Hubbard Street, eliminating parking spaces there. Parking spots will also be lost on Park Avenue and Loomis Street while the project is underway.
Last March, Montpelier voters approved a $4.9 million bond for school repairs that included $1.18 million for a new playground at Union Elementary School. The cost of the playground project was relatively high because of the need to remove contaminated soil from the site and improve drainage. Some residents had the impression work on the playground would begin the day after school got out in June, but the start of the project was delayed.
New school superintendent Libby Bonesteel explains why: “Basically all the bids came in much too high. We’ve had to work with the lowest bidder to get the costs down, and that has taken time.” The district received three bids in the spring for the project. Engineers Construction’s was the lowest of the three. DuBois Construction was the high bidder at $2,343,996 with Capitol Earthmoving’s $2,061,422 package sandwiched in the middle. A construction timeline will be announced within the next few days, according to project manager Jay Ericson.
The City Council’s approval of the plan to partially close Park Avenue will give students a safe spot to play while construction on the new playground takes place. Along with the street space, grassy areas by the school will also be part of the temporary play area, Ericson said.
“When the administration decides to utilize the space will be determined by the construction schedule,” he said. “A committee of teachers and staff has been working since the spring on a plan to ensure the space is safe and engaging for the kids. There won’t be any large equipment on the street, but there will be organized games and activities during recess.”
In addition to a playground equipment upgrade that meets current health, safety, and accessibility standards, the plan also includes soil contamination mitigation, access for students and adults with disabilities, and an outdoor classroom/playhouse designed by designed by Norwich’s Architecture Design Build program. The soil contamination, from an older building that burned on the site and from runoff and vehicle emissions over the years, was not a risk to current students but has to be dealt with while the site is rebuilt, according to Ericson. Technically, the playground is a brownfield site, he said.
A Norwich University faculty member worked closely with school personnel, students and community members to work on the structure. “The accessibility will be one of the biggest improvements. There was no real accessibility for the upper playground for the kids who need it. Our top priority has been focused on the children’s safety,” said Montpelier-Roxbury District Director of Facilities Andrew LaRosa. “We’ve been very appreciative of all the community engagement there’s been.”
The playground project has met with broad support by faculty, administration, parents and community members, according to Ericson. “We’ve had a number of public meetings on what [this plan] will mean,” said Ericson. “We’ve had a parent committee and we’ve gotten a lot of good questions and feedback.”
Jeff Prescott owns a home on Park Avenue with Andy Shuford and a four-unit rental property at 8 Park Ave. Prescott isn’t opposed to the plan, but notes it is expected to put a strain on residents’ lives. “Although we fully expect the playground re-construction process and the associated closure of Park Ave for the 2018–2019 school year to be disruptive,” he explained, “we are not opposed to the street closure plan that was approved by the city council.”
The construction project and the street closure have different time frames. The construction phase is scheduled to be completed within a few months. The street closure will extend through the end of the 2018-2019 school year. “The street closure has been configured in a way to maintain uninterrupted access from the upper end of Park Ave to both of our properties,” Prescott explained.
The target date for the new playground’s opening is fall 2019.