DeHart Park Gets Its Official Opening
After years of planning, grant writing, struggles over turf and construction, DeHart Park has a new life.
About six years ago, Maplewood resident Rick Sirois came to Township Committee member Kathleen Leventhal with an idea to improve the fields at DeHart Park.
Sirois had been in Montclair for a soccer game when he heard that the town had secured a Green Acres grant from the state for field improvements. He thought, "Why can't we do that in Maplewood?"
As Sirois—who remains active on the recreation advisory committee and the Open Space Trust Fund committee—said in a phone interview earlier this week, "My concern has always been programming because of the lack of space in town. I want to get as many kids playing as possible."
After a very circuitous route involving a referendum and a lawsuit, a newly renovated DeHart Park was dedicated by state, county and Maplewood officials on Friday, December 3, 2010. The renovated park features new organic grass fields, renovated paths, path lighting, field lighting and a redesigned and improved entrance to the park at Newark Way.
Originally, Sirois had brought forward the idea of renovating the park to accommodate artificial turf fields and therefore support more practice and playing time for Maplewood's many youth sports teams. (DeHart is one of the few parks with playing fields in town that has night lighting--unlike Underhill Field, Memorial Park and Maplecrest Park, for example.)
Sirois wrote all the grants for the renovations, said Township Committee member Kathy Leventhal. This included grants from the New Jersey Green Acres program and Essex County, totalling more than $1 million.
However, many in town--and particularly in the Hilton neighborhood surrounding DeHart Park--were not keen on the idea of converting the small park to mostly turf fields. Some felt that using Green Acres funds was inappropriate for installing an artificial surface. Others worried that the artificial turf would make the field unpleasant for passive uses like walking dogs and picnicking, particularly in summer when the turf heats to levels well beyond those of natural grass.
On the other hand, the Town was having difficulties accommodating play and practice time for all the youth sports in town, and proponents of the turf plan argued that natural grass fields were unable to handle the wear-and-tear of constant usage.
After a number of heated hearings at Town Hall, the turf question was put to a referendum. In November 2008, the turf option was defeated (the final vote was 47% for turf and 53% against).
A scaled-back plan for the Park's renovation was presented and adopted by the Township Committee in Spring 2009.
The next hurdle for the park renovations came after the project was bid and the construction contract of $1.27 million was awarded to Turco Golf of Suffern, NY in July 2009. One of the unsuccessful bidders--Andy-Matt--sued the Township, contending that it should have been awarded the contract as it was the lowest bidder. [The Township had disqualified Andy-Matt for not meeting a requirement to show documentation of having performed a minimum of 10 similar projects over the past 10 years.]
The Town rebid the project in September 2009 and again selected Turco, awarding the contract on October 20, 2009. The accepted bid ($1.224 million) was about $1 million less than original estimates for the Park's renovation--one of the few upsides to a down economy.
Township Administrator Joseph Manning said the final price tag for the renovation was $1,332,600.80. Mayor Vic DeLuca noted that the entire cost of the project had been paid for through a combination of New Jersey Green Acres funds, Essex County Open Space Trust Fund money, and Maplewood Open Space Trust Fund dollars.
Ground was broken on the park renovations in mid-November 2009. The park was completed and opened—unofficially—this September.
Although not present at the dedication ceremony, Sirois was gracious when contacted for comment: "I still would have preferred turf as it would have maximized recreation programming for all sports." He added, "Maintenance is also an issue. Grass costs more."
But overall, Sirois said, "I'm pleased."
Kathleen Leventhal also addressed the turf issue after the dedication ceremony on Friday: "I think for the most part, the wounds are healed. It's been open since September. The grass—it looks good."
Carol Buchanan of the Hilton Neighborhood Association was unequivocal in her praise for the project: "The neighborhood is happy!"
Committeeman Jerry Ryan summed up the mood: "I voted for the turf, but I'm not disappointed we have this lovely park. It's great for the neighborhood, the kids and the town."