Watchung playground, field upgrades are schools ‘looking to the future,’ leaders say
By TALIA WIENER
The upgraded Watchung School playground and field represent Montclair’s plans for the future and show a glimpse of what could be accomplished in coming years, community leaders said during a Feb. 16 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new facilities.
The projects to upgrade the playground and field had been tied closely together — and to some degree, complicated by one another, as parents lobbied to preserve playground space while plans were set to expand the field.
Planning for the playground began in spring 2020, Watchung Principal Patrick Krenn said during the ceremony. The playground’s completion was set for Aug. 19, according to a fact sheet on the district posted to its website last June. But supply chain delays stalled the construction — the district was still awaiting playground components in December, board administrator Nicholas Cipriano said at the Dec. 1 Board of Education meeting.
Families were told by Watchung’s principal the playground opened Jan. 3, while some playground components remained in transit.
Finally open for play, the space represents the Montclair community coming together and looking to the future, superintendent Jonathan Ponds said during the Feb. 16 ceremony.
“It might look like an everyday playground and field, but we know it is much more,” Ponds said. “Play and athletics are key to solid growth and social emotional well-being. Our young people are worth our investment.”
New infrastructure, such as the Watchung playground and field project, is much needed in Montclair schools, Councilman Peter Yacobellis said at the ceremony. Board of Education members are planning to bring a bond referendum to voters later this year, asking for at least $15.5 million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades across the district.
“We're going to be coming to you and asking you to support a significant investment in the buildings, in the fields, in the playgrounds,” Yacobellis said. “It's going to be one of the most important decisions that this community has ever had to make because it's about the future trajectory of the schools from this point forward.”
The playground and field are “something that our kids and our kids’ kids and others can enjoy,” Mayor Sean Spiller said at the ceremony. Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident with two children in the school district, shared a similar sentiment — upgrades are not just for the current generation, but for generations that are yet to come, he said.
“This is a community that is always thinking about the future,” Gill said.
In late 2018, the district first hired an architect to design plans to renovate and expand Watchung Field — which high school students use for lacrosse and field hockey — by cutting into the space used by the playground. The field suffered heavy damage during a rainstorm in August of that year, lifting and displacing the turf’s infill layer. In addition to addressing issues caused by the flood, the renovation was also intended to allow the field to be used for regulation lacrosse games.
Work was expected to commence in May 2021, but was put on hold for a week while district officials talked with parents concerned the field would get longer at the expense of the playground. The district’s fact sheet, though, said after reconfiguration the playing area would be 2,000 square feet larger than the original playground.
The Montclair High School field hockey team played the first game on the new field Oct. 9, MHS Athletics Director Patrick Scarpello said at the ceremony.
“I know athletics is not always the most important thing,” Scarpello said. “But for our young athletes, our student athletes, especially during COVID, the one message I heard from the parents is this is the one thing to bring them back to normalcy.”
School board President Latifah Jannah said that when she joined the board in 2018, some of the first communications she received were from Watchung parents asking about upgrading the playground and field.
“It is gratifying that after so many years of work by the district, the township and the continuous involvement of the Watchung school community that we are able to bring this project to fruition and celebrate the reopening of the playground and fields,” Jannah said at the ceremony.