Twenty years ago, the Missoula community joined Lowell Elementary School students and families to undertake the improbable feat of constructing a 10,000-square-foot playground in five days. Now, they’re starting the process over.
Lowell families and residents of Missoula's North and West sides met for the first public open house to discuss plans for the new Westside Park on Tuesday.
The park, adjacent to Lowell, is on land owned by Missoula County Public Schools, but the structure itself is owned by the city. Built in 1998, the park features wooden forts in the shapes of a spaceship and tepee, as well as painted panels featuring a dragon and a cat. Lowell Principal Barbara Frank said it also features worn structures and a boarded-up slide.
“They did some repairs in the fall that are limping the structure along so it’s safe for students to play on, but it's not something that we want to keep maintaining,” Frank said. “The cost of maintaining it is going to be too much.”
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After a recent inspection, MCPS and the City of Missoula concluded that it was time for a new park.
As with the previous park, the new project will be a community effort among MCPS and Lowell, the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, City of Missoula Parks and Recreation and Northside/Westside neighborhood residents.
At the open house, families viewed initial plans for the park, asked questions and shared their thoughts.
“We’re gathering feedback on the park design and then we'll start getting into more specifics,” Frank said.
Leslie Gallant, a paraeducator at Lowell whose 4-year-old will be attending kindergarten at the school next year, attended the open house.
“I'm excited to see improvements, a space that people can see better across the park and more modern equipment that is in line with what other parks have and the kids really want to play with,” Gallant said.
In November, Lowell students visited parks across Missoula and filled out surveys to indicate the equipment and aspects of each playground that they liked. Parents also provided feedback, which the planning group collected to inform a prospective design by Parks and Rec.
Students have expressed the most interest in having more climbing structures and, they hope, a zip line.
Neil Miner, a parks and trails design manager for Parks and Rec, said parents seem most interested in increased safety.
“The current one has all of these ‘hidey’ spots,” Miner said, referring to fort-like structures and portions of the park that obstruct teachers’ line of sight.
Tina Mace, a mother of three boys who are or will attend Lowell, lives about two blocks away from the school.
“I’m glad that they're concerned about safety,” Mace said. “There are too many people sleeping in the park and I understand that there have been syringes found under the wood chips and I'm not happy about that.”
Mace said she was glad to see that the designs showcased at the open house included components that would address safety concerns, such as the removal of forts and a restroom that obstructs teachers’ sight.
“We really value the park,” Mace said. “It’s a big deal to us that it’s functional.”
Miner said another concern is that current portions of the park are not safe. Parks and Rec has removed several pieces of the playground, such as the slide, that were no longer deemed safe.
“At first, a lot of people did not want to get rid of this playground, and I can see why,” Miner said. “But when you get out there and look at it, you realize that a lot of the pieces are starting to fall apart or break or get loose. We're trying to reuse what we can.”
Miner said the new park will have increased play value, a longer lifespan and reduced maintenance costs. Miner said wood playgrounds have higher maintenance costs, although he understands the importance of keeping some components with sentimental value.
Ian Smith lives across the street from Lowell and has a daughter who will be going to school there next year. Smith’s daughter currently attends preschool at Montessori Plus International, which uses the playground during the day.
“I'll be kind of sad to see the wood structure go but I also understand the need to address the problems,” Smith said.
Gallant said she was glad they would be keeping some of the painted wooden art featured in the current park as a reminder of the community building experience.
“It's nice to hold onto some things because this park was actually one of the first parks in Missoula to have this big modern structure and it was kind of a big deal because it was in the Westside neighborhood,” Gallant said. “There was a lot of pride in that and it was really great. But times change and I think it's nice that the school and Parks and Rec are working together to make it really nice again.”
Linda Burr, a special education teacher at Lowell who was there for the building of the current park in 1998, said she wants the new park to be more accessible for students.
“I’m excited that it's going to be more ADA-compliant so that parents and children with physical obstacles can enjoy the playground,” Burr said, noting that it would be nice to have smoother surfaces that are wheelchair accessible.
The new playground will also provide increased capacity for the growing population of MCPS students. Lowell is one of the MCPS schools that is only at about 75 percent capacity, with about 300 students. After the district rethinks boundaries, it may have around 400 students within a year, and potentially up to 500 in the future.
“The neighbors built this 20 years ago,” Miner said. “It was a volunteer effort so there's a lot of feelings about this park. They don’t want to see it just get torn down so we’re trying to reuse what we can. It needs to be a community effort and we want all the feedback we can get.”