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Space to Play

Monkey bars are an endangered species. So are seesaws, metal slides, and hard asphalt. But playgrounds are hot. Especially with co-ops and condos looking to increase market value.

“Brokers who show the building point out our playground, along with the gym, the parking garage, and other amenities,” notes Steve Vernon, president of the 1952-vintage Nagle Apartments in upper Manhattan, which converted to co-op in 1982.

Helen Lee, director of Onex Real Estate Partners, which developed and manages the new Sky View Parc in Flushing, says that complex’s rooftop playground “absolutely” is a selling point, “especially with young families. It was conceived at the outset when we were developing the plan. We also have an indoor play area with Mac computers, video games, and arts-and-craft tables.”

So, if you’ve got the space, where does your board start when it decides it might want to install a playground? Do you pick the equipment yourself or bring in a consultant? How much should you expect to spend? What about noise? What house rules should you set? And are there new safety requirements? The fall season is a good time to plan, lining up your contractors when the work is slow and the prices are down.

Safety First

“There’s a whole science behind it, a lot more than when we were kids,” says Andrew Kunz, owner of W.E.I.T. Creative Solutions, a playground contractor. He and others say it’s wise to speak with a consultant; most are affiliated with playground design-and-installation companies, such as the nationwide Landscape Structures and Grounds for Play. In the case of Sky View Parc, Lee says Onex retained a landscape designer, Moss Gilday Group, and a landscaper, Steven Dubner, who referred the developer to the multinational, Denmark-based company Kompan.

Another basic is safety. Playground-equipment manufacturers do have legal safety standards, but few if any apply to private residences. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says it “believes that guidelines, rather than a mandatory rule, are appropriate” (see box, p. 28).

“I don’t think there are any local [city] requirements” for private playgrounds, says attorney Steven D. Sladkus, a partner at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz. “My biggest concern is making sure the building’s general liability insurance coverage covers any incident that may happen on the playground.”

It makes sense to post certain warnings (for example, “Use at your own risk,” “No glass or alcoholic beverages allowed.” See box on this page).

Space: The Final Frontier

The design of your playground comes next. A plethora of companies manufacture playground equipment – individual pieces, all-in-ones, modular mix-and-match units – and often have in-house playground designers who use computer-assisted design to create views, perspectives, site plans, and color 3D renderings for boards to examine.

“There are a couple of things that dictate design,” says Kunz. Primarily, it’s “the size of the space you have. All playground equipment needs a ‘use zone,’ which is six feet around the equipment. That’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission guideline. It’s not a law, but it is a standard.”

The next consideration, says Kunz, “is to have an idea how many kids are going to be using it.” Playgrounds are broken into two major types: those designed for ages 2 to 5 and those for ages 5 to 12. Typically, you don’t mix the two, “though you might have a toddler area and an older-children area in another portion of the playground,” says Darrell Wilson, co-owner of the playground construction specialist Playsites + Surfaces.

Adds Wilson: “You have to be age-appropriate. If you have a very young community, you don’t want gigantic structures. Younger kids like motion – spinners, tot swings, spring riders. For older children, the hottest things these days are climbing structures, with ropes and nets. These have replaced monkey bars. Slides are still around,” he notes, although most are plastic rather than metal and often offer curves and tubes rather than a straight incline. “Seesaws are not quite as popular as they used to be; they take up a lot of space and only two children can use them at a time. Space being at a premium in New York City, you want to have as many children as possible able to use that space.”

If your co-op or condo has a courtyard or is a garden-apartment complex, space can be on open ground. Otherwise, and as is often done in new construction, you’ll find rooftop playgrounds, some with a screen enclosure.

There are different ways to find a contractor. Some companies provide start-to-finish service, from design to manufacture to installation. Otherwise, after settling on a design, a board will have its managing agent seek bids from specialty contractors.

“You want to have someone certified by the International Playground Contractors Association,” says Wilson, referring to the organization still known by its former national and incorporated initials, NPCAI. “That’s important. Everyone who has that certification has gone to a certification school [to confirm they have the expertise] to do this type of work. You also want someone who’s an accredited member of the Better Business Bureau,” he recommends.

Getting Floored

Whichever way you go, one of your biggest – and most expensive – considerations is the surfacing. “In the ’90s they used thin rubber tiles,” says Wilson. “Now the most popular thing is what’s called poured-in-place rubber: rubber granules mixed with a polyurethane binder and mixed to almost a molasses consistency then troweled into place to whatever thickness is required.” Poured-in-place rubber is the most expensive surfacing, notes Kunz. “There is also rubber mulch and wood mulch or engineered wood fiber, and even synthetic turf.

Another important and potentially expensive consideration is drainage. “You have to have ‘positive drainage’ away from the playground,” says Wilson. “‘Positive’ means it’s flowing away, ‘negative’ means it’s remaining in the playground or possibly flowing towards a building.” Poured-in-place rubber and playground equipment must be IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturer’s Association) certified. IPEMA uses a third party testing lab to ascertain that the surfacing and the equipment conform to the Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines for playground safety.” Warns Kunz: “If the safety surface doesn’t drain properly, that will affect the life of the surface.”

And that surface is a big part of the cost of a playground. Because there are so many variables depending on the size of your space, drainage issues, and the type and amount of equipment and surfacing you want, cost can vary widely. “Rarely do you see something dip under $25,000,” says Kunz, who when pressed offers an average range of “$40,000 to $70,000 with the surfacing.” Wilson says a typical range runs from $25,000 to $100,000. And generally that cost will be amortized over at least two decades; manufacturer warranties typically extend 10 years for plastic parts and 15 to 20 for metal parts, so product lifetime is much longer.

Ground Rules

Once everything is installed, your two biggest issues will be house rules, such as hours and use, and noise. “Our hours are basically dawn to dusk,” says Warren Schreiber, president of the 200-unit complex Bay Terrace Cooperative Section 1 in Queens. “We’ve tried to come up with hours that are more definitive, but it’s difficult. You want playgrounds to be shut down at night, since if you have it open at night you need special lighting.”

“We generally like to have house rules that are kind of imbued in common sense,” says Vernon, the board president. “Put toys away when you’re through, maintain a respectful level of noise. Our goal is not to have strict policing.”

You also don’t want to make rules that are unenforceable. “How do you tell somebody their child can’t have friends over?” asks Schreiber. “Dealing with angry parents – how do you even win that battle? So we don’t really have a rule on that – if kids invited two, three, four friends to come over. If they invited their whole third grade class, we might put our foot down. But certainly we understand children have friends, and parents might want to get together with other parents who have children.”

“One of the things I always say is check with the insurance broker to make sure that playground’s going to be covered,” advises Andrea Bunis, president of Andrea Bunis Management. “The other thing I would do is ask the broker if it’s covered for everybody – visitors to the building, or even people [who live in your complex but] who don’t live in that particular building. Is there any liability and exposure there, and if so, is it covered?”

And finally, cautions Kunz, there is signage. “You can save yourself a lot of litigation and headaches if you post a sign with the age grouping and that play should be supervised. Having that sign holds a ton of weight.”

Indeed, at Sky View Parc a sign reads: “Welcome: This unique play area is designed for children 5 to 12 years of age. Adult supervision is recommended.” And as anyone who’s ever served on a board knows, that last part may be good advice to keep in mind when you’re talking about installing a playground.

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