Parents: We were blindsided, but Watchung Field expansion delayed
(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Parents say plans to expand Watchung Field before the end of the school year — temporarily closing the Watching Elementary School playground in the process — have been postponed.
In addition, plans to expand the field could be revised to take less space away from the playground, they said.
The move by the Montclair school district comes after parents planned a protest of the closure, which they say they learned about only at the last minute.
For years, the community has been torn between the needs of Montclair High School student athletes — seeking a regulation-size field with safety upgrades — and the needs of 500 elementary students who use the playground during lunch and recess. But in 2019, a renovation and expansion of the field into some of the space currently used by the playground was approved by the Board of Education.
District officials say they plan to renovate the playground as well, but parents who’ve been pushing to protect it say they’re still not clear what those plans are.
On Thursday, May 27, Watchung Principal Patrick Krenn wrote an email to parents announcing construction would start on Tuesday, June 1, and the playground would be closed.
“The reasoning for beginning this project before the students are finished with school for the school year is so that the project can be completed in time for students returning for the 2021-22 school year in September,” he wrote.
Parents sent out email blasts calling for a protest at the school on June 1. Some parents showed up, but said they were relieved that at a May 31 Zoom meeting, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told parents that the project would be postponed until further dialogue could happen.
Ponds has not returned a request for comment from Montclair Local on the field and playground plans.
Plans to make Watchung Field a regulation-size lacrosse field were approved by the Board of Education in April 2019, with a budget of $1.3 million, but had been in the works since 2017.
The expansion and overhaul had been on hold since May 2019, when the district rejected a bid due to incomplete paperwork. And then the pandemic hit.
“The email was a jaw-dropper … before a holiday weekend,” said Jonathan Bellack, who in 2019 started the Watchung Playground Committee of parents concerned about the site. “The last we heard about the plans on the field was in February when Dr. Ponds met with us. But nothing was concrete at the time.”
More meetings were expected to take place, he said, but were canceled a few times due to the work required to reopen the schools in the pandemic.
The district, however, placed a public notice in the Herald News on March 12 soliciting bids for “Field Turf Replacement at Watchung School.”
The scope of the project includes, according to the notice: “The removal of the existing synthetic turf carpet (and infill mix) from the footprint of the multipurpose athletic field and expanding the turf field to incorporate a portion of the neighboring playground. Neighboring playground area is to be reconstructed with new site work and play equipment.”
The bids were opened publicly on Zoom on April 13. The district has not replied to emails and a public record request regarding the most recent architectural plans for the project, and who was awarded the contract for the work.
A BATTLE FOR SPACE
The field is used by Montclair field hockey and lacrosse teams, and although the 109-by-59.6-yard field is large enough for competitive field hockey games, officials in 2019 said lacrosse teams can only practice there due to its not being regulation size.
According to parent Henry Neff, Athletic Director P.J. Scarpello recently measured the field at 109 yards long and 59.6 yards wide “turf to turf.” But that measurement also includes a safety buffer of five yards at either end. So the current playing field area is actually 99 yards, he said.
The playing field would need to be lengthened to 110 yards (120 yards turf-to-turf) in order to meet the minimum length for varsity soccer and lacrosse, Neff said.
Parents of athletes have also said they’re more concerned with the safety of the field after it suffered heavy damage during a rainstorm in August 2018, lifting and displacing the turf’s infill layer. At the time, parents said they were concerned with safety due to the field’s condition and the risk of concussions and foot and knee injuries.
It was last overhauled 17 years ago, according to district officials.
According to USA Lacrosse, the playing area of a regulation men’s field should be 110 by 60 yards. A regulation women’s field can be between 110 by 60 yards and 140 by 70 yards. A unified boys and girls high school field should normally be 120 by 60 yards, but the organization says the width of a field can be as little as 53⅓ yards to accommodate existing field restrictions.
But a 2019 schematic by district architect Parette Somjen shows the field being expanded by 70.26 feet, or 23.42 yards, into the playground area, creating an L-shaped play area and taking away over half of the playground lot.
Bellack said parents met with Ponds and Scarpello Tuesday night, and “finally got to the bottom of the confusion.” He said the project would only need to expand the field 31 feet into the playground area, not the 70.26 feet drawn by the architect.
“That was not clear to Dr. Ponds or Dr. Scarpello until tonight’s meeting where we showed the two-year-old plans and they spoke with the architect,” Bellack wrote in an email to Montclair Local Tuesday night. He said Ponds agreed to look into the possibility of only adding the 31 feet.
“I hope it is clear to everyone in Montclair that there is no legitimate reason to build a field that is 40 feet longer than the high school actually needs on top of an elementary school playground,” Bellack wrote.
The Watchung Playground Committee parents want the athletes to have a safe, upgraded field, and at the same time wants the elementary school students to have an upgraded playground, Bellack said.
In May 2019, district officials rejected the only bid received for the Watchung Field construction and expansion. The bid, by Montville-based Applied Landscape Technology, was deemed insufficient and therefore rejected due to incomplete paperwork.
Parents were relieved, saying it gave them more time to come up with options for the playground, which will also lose a black-top area and at least one big tree.
Krenn wrote in his email to parents last week plans still call for the renovations to include a new ADA-compliant playground and set of swings.
Neff, also on the committee, said no specific plans showing the Watchung Playground renovations have ever been presented. A 2019 rendering Bellack said the district sent the committee shows slides and other playground equipment in a rectangular area.
Neff said, “The pictures portrayed the equipment in a virtual/open landscape quite different from the actual space where they would be situated.”
Emily Barocas, parent of two Watchung Elementary students, accused district officials of moving forward with plans without input from the school community.
“According to the committee, there is no one with any formal clout pushing or insisting for the needs of the 500 Watchung students and zero planning given to design of new playground or the right mix of equipment or shade and obvious ingress/egress issues,” Barocas said.
Neff and Bellack agreed other issues that need addressing are adequate shade since trees will have to be removed, safe ingress/egress for Watchung Elementary students in a reconfigured and much narrower space, and the increase in traffic and parking that will result from hosting more organized sporting events/practices that may impact the school day and schedule.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article described the field measurements at 110 by 60 yards. The story has been updated to reflect the actual size of 109 by 59.6 yards "turf to turf," with a playing field area of 99 by 59.6 yards.