Volume 20 Issue 13 | August 10 - 16, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Talisman Brolin

Enjoying the new swings at Vesuvio Playground in Soho.

Delays, community eruptions; Vesuvio opens at last

By Barrett Z. Gross

The sounds of happy children splashing and laughing can be heard every day now at the new in-ground pool installed in the freshly renovated Vesuvio Playground, on Thompson St. in Soho. The 3-foot deep, stainless-steel wading pool replaced an unsightly aboveground relic that was rusting behind its chain-link fence for decades. Young pool users, their guardians and Parks Department staff all expressed their delight with the new neighborhood amenity. 

Christina Aurricchio, 9, of Sullivan St. said it’s a big improvement over the old pool.

“This one’s better,” she enthused. “It’s a little cold at first, but it’s bigger than the old one and lots of new people are coming with their kids. I’m making new friends.”

Her mother, Christine, agreed.

“I love it because it gives me a break,” she said. “Kids really have a good time here. They run a tight ship here, and everyone follows the rules.” 

A temporary entry gate to the pool opens onto Thompson St. Once the park and sidewalk construction are completed, the temporary gate will close and access to the pool will be from within the park.

Besides the pool and handball/basketball court, the new Vesuvio Playground has a large piece of playground equipment for young children, more swings than the old park and a sprinkler with a flooring design intended to evoke Mt. Vesuvio in Italy.

Elizabeth Smith of Canal St. walked by with her two young children and declared the new playground equipment a success, even better than popular Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City.

“It’s not as high,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot more fun for my 3-year-old to play in this park.” 

The pool opened in concert with all other city pools before the July 4 holiday, which seemed like a miracle to neighborhood residents who had watched the construction site sit idle for six months this past fall, winter and spring.

After the initial demolition was finished last summer, the contractor left the site an unsightly mound of dirt and debris with an idle backhoe parked on it. A broken windshield and flat tire on the backhoe added to the sense that the project and the neighborhood had been abandoned. Rats that lived under or behind the old pool swarmed into the streets, provoking an angry flood of complaints to the city’s 311 line. 

Fran Santaga, a Spring St. resident who has been involved with the park’s renovation since early Community Board 2 meetings, recalled the first day the contractors arrived in spring 2006.

“People were sitting on the benches and the contractors put fences in front of them,” she said. “We were evicted from our own park.”

Many residents felt it was unreasonable to close the park for most of the spring and entire summer of 2006 when the pool would not reopen for at least 14 months. But hopes were raised when a sign posted on the handball court promised: “Over the next nine months, the Parks Department will rebuild Vesuvio Playground, creating a greener and more open space. Scheduled completion: January 2007.” 

Unfortunately, the sign was too optimistic, and impatience in the neighborhood turned to anger as the handful of workers on the job in the fall botched what little work was being done. The pavers surrounding the handball court were laid down, pulled up and relaid twice again. New benches were installed but locked behind the temporary fencing; the handball court was repaved and painted several times, but remained closed for no apparent reason.

Early this spring, neighbors felt all but certain that the park would be lost for another summer. But in May, a small army of subcontractors suddenly appeared on the site and worked every day, including weekends and holidays, until the new park finally began to take shape. Cristina DeLuca, a Parks spokesperson, said as many as 40 workers a day were on the site at times. 

Joseph Khaoury, the project manager for Omni Construction, said the delays were mostly on the city’s end.

“The main delay was for the pool,” according to Khaoury. “The Department of Health didn’t approve it until the fall of 2006.” The playground equipment was also redesigned when Parks determined that a large tree that was to have been transplanted would not survive. Khaoury claimed that five of the six months of delays were beyond his control: “No matter what we did, some people complained,” he said. “We closed the handball court and people complained, then we opened it and people complained about the noise of the ball bouncing on the wall.” 

DeLuca said unforeseen underground conditions discovered in the initial excavation also caused problems, and she confirmed that Parks forced Omni to replace a fencing subcontractor that was unresponsive.

Despite the raves about the new pool and expanded children’s areas, not everyone is happy with the redesign. Santaga, who led a group of parents and teens who petitioned the city back in 2002 to retain the old basketball court, worries where her teenaged son and his friends will go to hang out now that the park is more receptive to younger children.

“I can’t tell you the effect when the kids were thrown out,” Santaga said. “They tried the Canal St. court, but it is too dirty.” She feels having the hoop in the handball court is dangerous, since there is no division between the basketball and handball areas. There is also a longstanding drainage problem in the southeast corner of the handball court that has yet to be fixed, though Khaoury promised that a sewer contractor would be hired to snake the drain.

The budget for the park renovation initially was set at $1.5 million in 2002. However, by the time the final contract was issued in 2006, the project’s cost had risen to $2.2 million.

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