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Park District plans to rebuild 300 city playgrounds over next 5 years

Updated: April 16, 2013 4:09PM

The Chicago Park District will rebuild 300 playgrounds over the next five years — without any infusion of capital dollars — by replacing rubberized surfaces with cheaper fiber wood chips and forgoing construction of new fieldhouses.

“In the last decade, Millenium Park strengthened the core of the city. Millenium Park is now a Chicago icon that cities around the world want to imitate. In this decade, we will bring that same vitality, that same vision to where Chicago’s families live. We will breathe new life into the city with 300 rebuilt playgrounds,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday in the gym at the Harrison Park fieldhouse, 1824 S. Wood.

Emanuel’s plan is the Park District version of Hamburger Helper: When money is tight, stretch the limited funding you do have to benefit the greatest number of people.

The Park District has an annual capital budget of $30 million, with two-thirds of that money spent on maintaining its 252 buildings and 600 parks.

That leaves $10 million for new projects, including playgrounds and fieldhouses.

With rubber surfaces that cost $250,000 apiece, the Park District can only afford to do 10 to 15 playgrounds a year. At that rate, it would take more than 30 years to replace all 500 playgrounds, half of them 20 years old.

By switching to synthetic wood chips that cost $5,000 to $10,000 per playground and giving up on fieldhouse construction without private partners, the Park District can do about 60 playgrounds a year and 300 over five years, according to Superintendent Michael Kelly.

“We’re strapped. Everybody’s strapped with cash. You have to stretch your dollars and be more strategic if you want to reach all of the neighborhoods of Chicago,” Kelly said.

“We have 600 parks. When I walk out of this place, I want to be able to touch all 600 parks. Mayor Emanuel doesn’t have the patience to wait that long. He wants to get it done now. And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

The superintendent noted that it costs $10 million to build one new fieldhouse.

“We’re gonna cut the ribbon on two or three new fieldhouses. I don’t think we’ll probably do a new fieldhouse without serious cash coming from an outside source after this,” he said.

Kelly insisted that synthetic wood chips he called “fibar” are perfectly safe. The Park District made the switch to rubber a decade ago because it was a “novel idea,” the superintendent said, but he was hard-pressed to explain why the District stuck with it.

Of the 60 playgrounds rebuilt during the first year, 15 will still have rubber surfaces, because those 15 neighborhoods have already raised the money for what Kelly called the “Cadillac” version. The rest will have all new equipment but surfaces made of synthetic chips.

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