June 15, 2016

Council Approves Plan For New Design Concept Of Mary Moss Playground

Princeton Council voted unanimously Monday night for a plan to renovate the Mary Moss Park and Playground in the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood. Identified as a priority in 2008 and in development by a subcommittee for the past two-and-a-half years, the plan calls for removal of the existing wading pool, adding a “spray ground,” new landscaping, and possibly some game tables and a performance area.

Central to the proposal is a plan to maintain the legacy of Mary B. Moss, who played a vital role in the creation of the playground 70 years ago. That was a concern of some members of the public who voiced their opinions before the Council cast their unanimous vote in favor of the plan. “To many, she is more important than Paul Robeson,” said neighborhood resident Leighton Newlin. “Mary Moss is a legendary Princetonian. When the playground was built in 1946, it was the only place African Americans could play.”

Ben Stentz, the town’s recreation director, stressed that honoring Ms. Moss’s contributions has always been paramount, and neighborhood residents will be asked for input on how that should best be done. “We want to get that right,” he said.

Mr. Stentz headed a committee that included other members of the recreation department, municipal staff, some local residents, and The RBA Group, Inc. as design consultants. Through feedback gathered at two public meetings, email, and other communications, the committee concluded that residents wanted more space for the playground, more seating areas, and better landscaping.

Funding from Mercer County is paying for the expansion. The town bought a lot next to the park with open space funds. A second lot was supposed to be part of the expansion, but is instead being used for one unit of affordable housing. Some who spoke asked Council to delay finalizing a design, hoping to shift the design slightly so that a second affordable unit could fit onto that adjacent property.

The town should be able to raise money to fit in a second affordable unit, said Maple Street resident Alexi Assmus. “We can raise money for the five-story hospital, so why can’t we raise money for affordable housing?” she asked. John Heilner of Library Place, a member of a group called the Jackson Historic District Committee, said the town should give up some of the park property to accommodate a second housing unit. Princeton’s affordable housing trust fund purchased the lot next to the park, and Habitat for Humanity is set to raise the money to build a house there. Municipal administrator Marc Dashield has said that adding a second unit is not feasible.

More than one resident said they came to the meeting intending to voice opposition to the plan and the removal of the dilapidated wading pool because it represents an important part of the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood’s history. But after hearing Mr. Stentz’s presentation, they changed their minds. “I came here tonight thinking wading pool or bust,” Mr. Newlin said. “But the most important thing is that people want to see the legacy and memory of Mary Moss continue, no matter what the design.”

Ashanti Thompson of Leigh Avenue, said that safety and Ms. Moss’s legacy were her priorities. “I believe this park will bring people from outside, and that’ll be a great thing,” she said. Mercer County Freeholder Andrew Koontz also spoke in favor of the proposal, primarily because it is in agreement with what was proposed. “It uses county funds in ways that are supposed to be used,” he said. “That demonstrates good faith.”

A woman who read comments by former Borough Mayor Yina Moore said the plan falls short and doesn’t reflect what the neighborhood wants. Dempsey Avenue resident Kip Cherry complained that there hasn’t been enough public process, and neighborhood resident Bernadine Hines said the project has been fast-tracked. She also commented that a proposed entrance to the park at John and Lytle streets could present a problem because it is a dangerous intersection.

Mr. Stentz said that while a small number of residents wanted to keep the wading pool, it does not meet codes and would have to be twice as long in order to be ADA compliant. While the pool could be open only three months a year, the spray ground area could be used for additional functions during other months. “That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “If we have a chance [to make it] more safe, more accessible, and frankly more fun, we should do it.” His goal, he added, “is to make this playground or park be relevant for another 80 or 90 years.”

With the Community Park Pool within walking distance, rebuilding the wading pool would not make sense, Mr. Stentz added. It also would send a message that neighborhood residents should stay in their neighborhood. “It isn’t wise to duplicate what we have so close by. Philosophically, why would we build a wading pool and send a message to kids in the neighborhood that they should stay there to swim?” he said.

Community Park Pool offers scholarships to families that can’t afford to pay the regular membership fees. Currently, some 80 Witherspoon neighborhood families have applied for scholarships and none have been turned down, Mr. Stentz said.

Councilman Lance Liverman said he was “100 percent on board” with the proposal. “If this was any other neighborhood, they would grab at it,” he said. “I really feel in my heart that this will be a bonus.” Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said, “It’s been really hard. But this is a great idea. There aren’t that many parks for young children, so I support it.” Councilwoman Heather Howard said the park presents “an exciting opportunity to embrace taking the story to a greater level.” Councilman Bernie Miller said, “The process has been open, inclusive, and consultative, so I support it.”