WESTFIELD, NJ – Mayor Shelley Brindle told the Westfield Recreation Commission Monday that proposed Tamaques Park renovations need to be evaluated for four main concerns before going forward. The project's delay was previously announced at the most recent town council meeting to the dismay of several coaches, parents and some council members.
According to Brindle, the renovations have four aspects that need to be investigated before the plan moves forward: safety in relation to parking and traffic, the size and budget of the fieldhouse, fencing and change of use.
“This proposal essentially changes Tamaques Park from a public park to a recreational facility,” she said. “That’s a really big deal. It may very well be appropriate, but that’s the kind of thing where a determination would be the outcome of a parks master plan with significant public input from all of you. So after speaking with Gary [Fox, chairman of the commission] and Don [Bogardus, recreation director], the new town council members and many others, we agreed to accelerate the parks master plan so it is concurrent with the master plan.”
According to Brindle, the town council feels that a project with such a large cost needs to be evaluated before going forward.
“We would be remiss if we came to office and didn’t scrutinize the $6.8 million projected cost that would be our responsibility to fund and bring to completion,” she continued. “In order for us to be effective champions for this, we need to be confident that it yields the best outcome for our community. That said, we are also equally responsible for delivering results. We were also elected to deliver on a campaign promise: to be a community-driven process to develop a new master plan for Westfield. Creating a holistic plan for all of our parks, not just one, would be a component of that.”
“For example, one of the questions asked was, are the two fields being proposed enough to accommodate the growth projections for youth sports?” Brindle said. “One purpose of a park’s master plan is to create a long-term plan that can be implemented over time to ensure that we can proactively plan for growth and not get caught again in the situation we find ourselves in today.”
Brindle also emphasized that the original renovations had a long way to go before ground would break on the turf fields.
“These fields were still in development and weren’t remotely close to being approved,” Brindle said. “It’s not like they were ready to put a shovel in the ground anytime soon. As proposed, it wouldn’t be ready for building until fall of 2019, maybe spring of 2020, with approval for funding by the council that has not yet happened. Our proposal, as we’re suggesting, will be a publically vetted project with a potentially better outcome and support from the council, with a projected date, if everything goes well, of fall 2020.”
Residents questioned the possibility of moving the renovations to another park in town.
“When this was brought up to the finance committee, Memorial Park was brought up as a possible option, but John Bell [a Westfield engineer] let us know what he thought were the additional costs to do it at Memorial Park, and he came back and felt the Tamaques Park location was better than the Memorial Park location,” Bogardis said. “But we haven’t really looked at Sycamore or other locations.”
Shortly after, Peter Echausse, a member of the recreation commission, said that moving the renovations could cause environmental concerns, explaining that Tamaques was chosen because the town is familiar with installing lit fields there.
“We chose here because we already have tennis courts here that are lit and we know what we’re putting a turf field over,” Echausse said. “It’s a grass field. If we start going into areas that we don’t know what’s underneath there, we start going into environmental risks. We thought it’s flat, it’s grass, we have a history of being able to turf grass. But most importantly because of the neighborhood. We have to be sensitive to any neighborhood when we’re looking to build a field that has lights. This is a higher elevation and the technology is better now than it was 10 years ago when we originally installed the lights at the tennis courts.”
Councilman Mark LopGrippo questioned the environmental concerns of moving the fields, saying an environmental impact study could add significant time onto the project.
“I work for the state,” LoGrippo, who was in the audience, said. “Once you start going back there, you’re looking at extensive time for approval. You’re looking at years, not months.”
Brindle said that, though she has her personal opinions, the final decision lies with Bogardis.
“I would defer to Don,” Brindle said. “We all have an opinion on what should be done but he’s really the expert. I just told you what my concerns were. How we go about solving them is up to you and the process.”
Peter Politi, a youth hockey and lacrosse coach in Westfield, questioned why the turf fields need to be installed in accordance with the master plan, rather than just implementing the renovations in phases.
“This field solves a problem that we have today,” Politi said. “Doing this right now is not going to cause a huge issue. It’s not even going to cause a huge problem in the master plan if you do it in phases. You’re turfing existing grass and we’re done, and then we can move on to whatever other master plan ideas you have. We need fields. We don’t have it. We’re running into issues. I don’t want to have to go to Metuchen on a Thursday night to go use the turf field down there. It’s costing our program money. You guys already spent $45 to $60 grand on this. Why are you flushing away good money to chase bad?”
In sum, Fox said the commission is not abandoning the renovations, just reevaluating what was already proposed.
“We’re just slowing down and taking another look at it,” he said.
Brindle's speech to the recreation commission can be read in this letter to the editor.