Residents question closing of park near temporary school
STAMFORD — A park closed when a temporary school opened on Elmcroft Road, and residents are asking why.
Kosciuszko Park, which is beside an office building that was quickly converted to classrooms last month after Westover Magnet Elementary School was closed because of mold infestation, is gated off from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
South End residents, many of whom live in apartments, and others who walk or exercise their dogs in the waterfront park want to know why it is closed during school hours when other city parks next to schools are not.
“Kosciuszko is surrounded by water. It’s pretty there. A lot of people like to go,” said Sue Halpern, who lives down the street. “I walk there during the day. It’s not unsafe, so I have to wonder why they closed it.”
Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman David Winston said the panel is working with the Board of Representatives’ Parks and Recreation Committee “to determine why it has always been a ‘safe’ park, according to the Stamford Police Department, and somehow not now that Westover kids are there.”
Winston said the commission “is very concerned that no emergency was declared, which would have given anyone authority to take control of that park.”
The parks committee co-chair, city Rep. Marion McGarry, D-12, has been trying to get a discussion on the agenda. Several schools sit side-by-side with public parks that remain open during class time, McGarry said, including at least two elementary schools — Springdale, where students use Drotar Park; and Stark, near Northrup Park.
Others include Cloonan Middle School, where students use Scalzi Park, and Turn of River Middle School, which is beside the Vine Road Little League Field, McGarry said.
It goes beyond that, she said — the city’s recreation department runs summer programs for kids at Barrett and Cove Island parks without closing them.
“The parks are there, safe or not,” McGarry said. “Constituents want to use Kosciuszko Park during the day, but they’re not allowed, even though it’s allowed at other parks.”
Director of Administration Michael Handler, who heads the city’s Mold Task Force, said this week officials have to figure out whether Westover students and Kosciuszko park-goers can “co-exist.” The task force had less than a week to open a school in the office building, and the park shutdown was “an unintended consequence,” Handler said.
“I did not close the park. The people responsible for school security closed it, working with the Stamford Police Department,” he said. “In the interest of safety, it’s closed until we can assess security issues and then we’ll decide.”
Assistant Chief Thomas Wuennemann said police did not close the park.
“I can’t say who officially approved it, but if the parks commission says to open it up, we’ll do that,” Wuennemann said. “We’re not opposed to opening it if school officials feel it needs to be opened.”
The only reason he could think of for shutting Kosciuszko is that teachers have to lead young students across a driveway and parking lot to get to the playground — a less safe endeavor if cars are entering the park, Wuennemann said.
Stamford Public Schools spokeswoman Sharon Beadle could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Members of the parks commission said at their November meeting that they were not notified that Kosciuszko Park would be closed once Westover students moved into the office building.
’We understand these are extenuating circumstances, but I find the closing of the park to be a pretty extreme measure,” Winston told Handler.
“We did not have a security assessment done and didn’t know what the issues were,” Handler said. “You can’t open a school unless you can assure safety.”
Parks and Facilities Manager Kevin Murray confirmed during the meeting that several city parks are on school property and the public has access when classes are in session. But the mold-prompted move from Westover to the South End office building posed special circumstances, Murray said.
He thinks the park was closed “to be sensitive to the move and the security of the children … to make sure parents have peace of mind,” Murray said. “But I think when this all irons out, the park will remain open because we have a lot of parks that are open to the public. We don’t close the parks. I think once this sensitive portion is by us a little bit, they’ll figure this out.”
A woman who frequents Kosciuszko told commissioners she fears the park will be closed during the day for months because of the extent of repairs needed at Westover. Handler said during the meeting that a preliminary assessment indicates it could cost $16 million.
“It could be upwards of that,” Handler said. “It’s a groundwater issue. The school was built on a stream.”
Wuennemann said officials have the winter to figure out what to do about Kosciuszko.
“It’s cold now, but this clearly needs to get straightened out before the weather gets warm,” Wuennemann said. “People are going to be using that park.”