By Douglas Feiden
It would be a fantasy assignment for planners, a career capstone for designers and a dream job for architects and landscapers. They should be so lucky.
Instead, it will be the children of Sag Harbor who get to have all the fun. But they’ll also be entrusted with a critical task: Helping transform a park space that’s been central to the life of the village for more than a century.
The mission begins on Tuesday, March 29, when 425 students at Sag Harbor Elementary School hold a brainstorming session to come up with ideas for a new design for a beloved if timeworn spot that many of them know intimately, the playground at Mashashimuet Park.
It’s the first step in a rare fundraising campaign that the nonprofit stewards of the privately owned park are launching to reinvent the oddly shaped, asymmetrical, 1-acre treasure on the park’s western edge, which has been a place of play since 1908.
The Parks and Recreation Association of Sag Harbor has priced out potential development costs and arrived at preliminary estimates ranging from $300,000 to $600,000 to renovate and rebuild the old playground, according to two board members.
The goal is to rally the community behind the effort, build local awareness of both the park and the project and draw donors and volunteers who could contribute goods, services, materials and time — and shave hundreds of thousands of dollars off the costs, they said.
“And it all begins with the kids,” said board member Robby Stein, a Sag Harbor Village trustee who serves as the village’s liaison to the park board.
Agreed Janine Rayano, vice president of the park association, “We’re going to start from the bottom up.”
To do that, Mashashimuet officials enlisted Leathers & Associates, a well-known creator of custom-designed playgrounds nationwide whose work has been featured on child-oriented television shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.”
Leathers, which is based in Ithaca, says it designs, organizes and constructs “one-of-a-kind, community-build playgrounds” that are the “fulfillment of children’s dreams” and a product of community volunteerism and creativity.
The firm is hosting a “Design Day” at the elementary school on Tuesday in which its designers will seek ideas, concepts, talking points, letters, drawings and other input on a custom play space from students in kindergarten through fifth grade, who will be among its most likely users.
Leathers will guide the children, based on earlier consultations with the park board, and the history and heritage of Sag Harbor will figure in its discussions:
“Our goal is not to have a cookie-cutter park,” Ms. Rayano said. On the contrary, literary, nautical and historical themes will be examined. And “clever play structures” — in the shape of whales, ships and lifeboats — that are available in the modern playground portfolio would be considered, the board said.
After an 8:45 a.m. presentation, kids from each of the grades will cycle through the gym or library, sit down with playground specialists, summon their inner designers, put their thoughts on paper, and hopefully, conjure up some awe-inspiring playfields.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Matt Malone, the school’s principal.
“Art and creativity are among the things we foster here, so I think our kids will tell us what their dream playground will look like and come up with some really great concepts that will hopefully lead to a wonderful playground for many, many years to come.”
After a morning of brainstorming in which the children sketch out their “fantasy park,” Leathers’ designers will take their drawings and concepts and create a draft plan by afternoon that reflects the imagination and creativity of the kids.
“The idea is, we close out the day and everybody says, ‘Voila!,’” Mr. Malone said.
The playground, framed in natural colors of green and brown, clearly needs work. Rust, decay and signs of aging are visible on play equipment. Still, enthusiasm for the slides, swing sets, seesaws, climbing rock, hollowed-out log tunnel, sandbox, bouncing horses, monkey bars and model fire engine seems boundless.
“There are no safety issues, but there are cosmetic issues,” says park manager Jeff Robinson. “The swings have been painted so many times over the years, it’s chipping off, and you can actually see the different layers of paint going back in time.”
Indeed, says Girl Scout leader Jen Glass, “Most of the playground equipment is the same stuff I played on about 40 years ago.”
But the nine girls in Sag Harbor’s Troop 152 helped to change that even before Design Day was organized, raising $4,700 in a buy-a-brick program to win badges for their Bronze Award project.
“The money will be used to buy a piece of play equipment,” Ms. Glass said. “The girls wanted to give back to the park, and they’re thrilled about what they’ve accomplished so far.”
Meanwhile, Leathers will manage the input the children provide on Design Day, and the park board will have the final say on the blueprints drawn up. Once a preliminary design plan is unveiled, the board says it will kick off its fundraising drive.
But even as it prepares to ask the public for funds, an unusual step for the board, it remains tight-lipped about its finances. Ms. Rayano said fiscal details “are not public record,” she isn’t “at liberty to release any fiscal information” and the annual budget is not “relevant” to Design Day.