I've had the opportunity to review the video, written articles and the sketches that were presented to the Borough Council last week from the group that is calling itself the Recreation Redevelopment Initiative. To open, while I'm encouraged that these individuals took the time to study the Recreation Master Plan (RMP), it strikes me as somewhat redundant to the work that has been ongoing for the past 4-5 years by so many other individuals and organizations who have positioned the RMP as their focal point. I also find it concerning that the New Providence Community Activities Advisory Board, the legacy organization that completed not only the original RMP, but also conducted the Recreational Focus Group Study last year, was not involved or asked for its input to this proposal, or any proposal involving the improvement of Borough recreational facilities.
Getting past that, let's all understand that the 2006 RMP stopped at implementation. Beyond the turfing of Lieder Field which was initiated and led by the New Providence Athletic Foundation, and the field renovation at CR Bard which was the sole undertaking of the New Providence Soccer Club, much of what has been implemented to date relating to the RMP has been privately driven and funded by these organizations, but executed through collaboration with CR BARD, Inc., the Borough, and/or the Board of Education.
I can appreciate that this new proposal was presented as a "rough draft". However, much of it, particularly the Core Area and Oakwood Area concept proposal estimated at $3M, is laden with much supposition and more "ifs" than actual commitments. The current proposal to renovate Oakwood Park that is being put forward to the public as a referendum in November has been opposed by individuals who have at times revealed a lack of understanding and/or validation of their concerns. Is it a coincidence that this alternative is being put forward as if it is a viable option to the current proposal? Probably not.
In terms of their "Core Area Concept Plan", it appears that little or no engineering study was used to determine the viability of this parcel of land which houses the current Borough tennis courts. It is surrounded by the Salt Brook on two contiguous sides, which has overflowed its banks on several occasions in recent years, and lacks stability as evidenced by the recurring structural cracks throughout the court surface. More importantly, due to the proximity to the flood zone, does it make sense to spend taxpayer dollars to build at a location that could be potentially compromised and damaged by flooding? Does the community really need to have an engineering assessment completed upon this site to determine its ability to have a synthetic turf field installed? More importantly, the only access to construct this core complex is predicated and contingent upon the sale of the OLP field adjacent to the parking lot, which is under the control and ownership of the Archdiocese of Newark; not the OLP Church and Academy as stated within the proposal. There is no other access to the site for construction vehicles and heavy machinery. This is the largest supposition within this proposed site location. No mention was made of the potential cost or willingness, let alone commitment to transfer this key parcel of right of way to the Borough from the Archdiocese, not to mention the installation of tennis courts after the synthetic field is installed, of which I believe OLP is firmly against. What about the resulting contention for parking and traffic impact to OLP, its parishioners, its students? Where will vehicles and equipment be parked for the annual OLP Carnival fundraiser?
Putting aside the issue of cost, there are several key components missing from the concept rendering to the Core Area. There's no mention of a seating area for fans, other than it's somewhere between the new playground that will be wedged between the new field and pool fencing. In terms of safety, the amount, height or cost of fencing that will be required to contain play within the confines of the proposed field, or a means to ensure the safety of children and spectators that will be exposed to the adjacent waterways if not fenced properly, is not reflected or included. There's no mention of the impact to "casual users" of the existing facilities relative to jogging and walking paths, or the participant safety thereof. Structurally, what are the implications of placing an ice skating liner on top of a newly constructed tennis court or synthetic turf facility? What are the contingencies for parking and traffic provided that a weekend in May could have a varsity baseball game and tennis matches at the same time, the community pool open and full to capacity, and a series of soccer and lacrosse games scheduled simultaneously with weekend Mass services at OLP? Given all of the above to consider, and provided that the plan can overcome and address the structural, safety and institutional red flags, is this really a good location, and isn't this in reality a $2.5 to $3M cost to do just the Core Area rather than the $1.4M "estimate" provided?
While not included within the cost figures of this proposal, the location of a miniature golf course is very questionable. As I recall, it was considered and rejected by the Borough a few years back. Its proposed location will restrict access to the Jaycees Park, which is a key component of the Borough's summer camp program. This option also presents additional safety concerns and would require perimeter fencing due to its proximity to what is proposed to be a very busy parking and access road through the community pool parking lot and proposed Core Area complex. Lights appear absent for purposes of extending basketball, volleyball and bocce, mini-golf or tennis during "non pool hours" which was implied to be one of the project's benefits. Before a mini golf option is considered, let the public know that it will probably cost them $30,000 in debt service to fund this "option" before such time as it is viewed as a potential revenue source to pay off any of the other alternatives listed.
The modified design of Oakwood Park also presents some ambiguity vs. the original design that has been through professional rigor, and does not include new buildings that were viewed as a necessary component within the original site improvement design. The overall cost of this revised Oakwood design, estimated at $1.6M, also seems quite low. The synthetic turf, field prep, goal posts and amenities alone will cost close to $1M. If you trust the estimates provided, that leaves $600,000 to complete the remaining grass baseball diamond renovation, drainage, leveling, surfacing, relocation of the smaller diamond, separation and transition tiers, interior fencing, parking lot and road construction, including the rights of way, path and lot lighting and other structural changes to the existing site not reflected. The inclusion of just one full size rectangular field also represents less than that recommended in the original Oakwood design of two full-sized rectangular fields. While baseball on grass is an aesthetic improvement, is it truly possible to have a grass field tiered above a synthetic turf field from a drainage perspective?
While the access road connecting the parking lot areas at Oakwood is interesting, it also introduces an element of concern in that it may become an unintended thoroughfare for convenience and joyriding if not contained with speed bumps. However, the inclusion of this connecting road, while addressing the traffic concerns of local residents, also introduces more safety concerns from the turf field situated directly beneath the power lines that traverse the property. The current Oakwood Park proposed design places the fields in a way that avoids the power lines, however this alternative does not. It would appear that the proposed field location would not be permissible within the design guidelines and safety specification, especially with the goal posts ascending toward the power lines.
Fundamentally, the proposed concept drawings and cost estimates of $1M to complete the "phase 2" renovations of Lincoln and Grove are equally unrealistic and absent of key design, layout, and components such as irrigation to sustain an investment in grass field renovation for it to be considered viable as detailed within the RMP. No mention is made to the extent to which these facilities are to be improved relative to grading or leveling of the existing slope, drainage, or the required brook bank stabilization that may be required at Lincoln. The proximity of the relocated diamond at Lincoln is not feasible given the thinness of forest border between residents and regular introduction of foul balls to their backyards. A design recommendation would be to consider a location to the western corner of the property, trimming back the forestry along the leftfield foul line (along the brook bank), which would also enhance the full sided rectangular field to not have an infield skin running through it.
At Grove, the proposal provides some elements of safety and environmental challenge that may require EPA approval if any further impingement upon the existing wetlands is created or substantive physical changes to the site such as the introduction of some necessary fencing to make this design a real consideration. The current layout provides for a full sized rectangular field for full sided soccer. Converting this to two smaller rectangular fields does not accomplish an outcome commensurate with the RMP's conclusions. The resulting clutter of users does not outweigh the loss of a full sized rectangular field from within the Borough's inventory, and creates a safety concern relative to the relocated diamond in direct proximity to the parking area. A recommendation would be to level and grade the existing facility, implement ample irrigation (not scoped) and reorient the full sized rectangular field in a NNE to SSW manner. More importantly and strategically, given the many constraints above, the folks that have been studying improvements over the past 4-5 years point to the Hillview property as more viable opportunity than Grove. In any event, it should be clearly established for the public what is included in a $3M project and what elements are not included and additional, in order for the public to understand what is being proposed as an "alternative solution".
In summary, this Recreation Redevelopment Initiative undoubtedly comes at a much higher cost without buildings vs. the original Oakwood plan with buildings. It does not include the cost of acquiring the OLP tract of land from the Archdiocese of Newark, without which this proposal is out of the question. This alternative shifts traffic to another part of town. The cost of this proposal would be entirely borne by taxpayers. The so called "endorsements" or financial commitments by participant sports organizations, the CAAB, or the Archdiocese of Newark, were admittedly never confirmed or accurately quoted within the proposal itself.
Interestingly, it now appears that traffic, safety, crumb rubber, and strangers coming into town are no longer concerns of those opposed to the original Oakwood Park plan, who now apparently support this alternative proposal. The concept renderings treat these issues as acceptable components of their design. IF this proposal were accepted by the key constituent groups, and IF the taxpayers agreed to pay for it, and IF the logistical obstacles were navigated successfully, the realization of the benefit of these improvements are at least two to three years farther out than the current Oakwood plan.
It would appear that this proposal attempts to provide for many of the improvements that are already in the current Oakwood plan, but at other locations in town to avoid the issue of County ownership. It is important for all residents to understand that this alternative comes with an incredibly high price tag - whereas the current Oakwood plan will not require any taxpayer contributions. As a community, and as voters, we will be given the opportunity to vote thumbs up or down on our willingness to see significant improvements made at Oakwood, consistent with the RMP, in exchange for County-ownership of the park. Until such time, any proposal that merely shifts the "where" and the "how," with no funding commitments, needs to be viewed purely as a deflection.
In reality, the combined Core Area and Oakwood Area "alternatives" will provide far less in terms of advancement of the RMP. It does not include buildings, will require lots of assessment development, and is full of holes. This alternative plan will burden taxpayers at a time in which the State of New Jersey has announced a 15% reduction in State Aid to the Borough and at a time when the overall Municipal Budget process is already severely challenged. I feel strongly that if collaboration is the real goal of the Recreation Redevelopment Initiative, we don't need to launch new studies or start new organizations. I invite these concerned citizens to join the existing organizations within the community that have already invested significant time and effort to review opportunities, alternatives and priorities, and have the most potential and resources to make these types of dreams realities. If any of the necessary improvements are to be made in the Borough, they will be the result of communication and collaboration, and not through a series of independent efforts.