Kids With Disabilities Playground at Penn South

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

Erik Bottcher announcing the playground plan. Photo courtesy of Council Member Bottcher’s Office.

It’s odd how long things take, but this time the wait is sweet. In line with the Fiscal Year 2023 budget (adopted in June 2022) the City is ready to spend the $3.9 million allocated to fund a transformation of Penn South Playground on West 26th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. The result will be City Council District 3’s first playground designed for children with disabilities.

Penn South Playground, which Council Member Erik Bottcher has said goes mostly unused in its current state, is now due for a major upgrade. Bottcher got $3.9 million allocated for renovation and, after consultation with Community Board 4, it will become a playground designed for kids with disabilities.

The NYC Parks Department separates accessible playgrounds into four tiers. A directory compiled by “Let Kids Play!” lists over 50 playgrounds of varying levels of accessibility in Manhattan. For the slated transformation of Penn South Playground, efforts will be made to create a space that accommodates children with all kinds of disabilities, after much community vocalization.

“Every year, we put this park as a priority on CB4’s annual “statement of district needs,” said Leslie Boghosian Murphy, Co-chair of Community Board 4’s Waterfront, Parks and Environment Committee. The location is prime for an upgraded, inclusive play space, he explained to the Chelsea News, since it’s “centrally located in the District and the current playground is highly underutilized. This will improve the quality of life for thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities.”

Penn South Playground. Photo courtesy of the NYC Parks Department.

At present, the playground isn’t much to look at. There’s a winding slide, weathered paint and a stand-alone elephant statue. At Bottcher’s announcement ceremony, the small crowd cheered when asked whether the elephant, like an unofficial mascot, should remain after renovations. He said that it would.

“During COVID-19 shutdowns, many in the city came to appreciate outdoor space more deeply,” Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said. “What this pandemic has taught us, in our city, are so many, many lessons,” she said, “but one of the most important is the value and importance of our open spaces. Our local neighborhood parks and playgrounds remain havens for us.”

The process will start in the coming months with a discussion moderated by the Parks Department. It will include experts on accessible design and it will be open to the public.

The primary focus of renovations will be ensuring that the new playground suits a wide range of needs—not stopping at wheelchair accessibility or “one feature that’s within reach of a wheelchair user,” Bottcher said. “We want equipment designed to be a lot of fun and to help kids with special needs develop their motor skills, their physical strength, social skills and more.”

“People with all types of disabilities need to play,” Sharon McLennon-Wier, Executive Director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, said. “Accessible” playgrounds may include alternatives to traditional swing sets, slides or merry-go-rounds and ramps for those using wheelchairs, while “inclusive” playgrounds—a step up—may boast “calm areas” or activities that engage various senses. For example, pathways that are easy to navigate and play features with varying levels of challenge. At Penn South, the adjoining basketball courts will also be resurfaced.

Adaptive Design Association, a local nonprofit that creates custom equipment for people with disabilities, will weigh in on the playground’s design. Identifying children who would benefit from the group’s services in the district has been difficult, explained Jennifer Hercman, the organization’s executive director. A park—serving as a meeting place—could foster a sense of community and make connecting people with services easier. “It’s going to be an oasis,” she said.

Penn South Playground. Photo courtesy of the NYC Parks Department.

Erik Bottcher announcing the playground plan. Photo courtesy of Council Member Bottcher’s Office.