Benson Park remains closed

Could take months for environmental clean-up to be completed

A public playground that was closed by city officials in June for environmental remediation remains closed and may not be reopened for several months. The closure will further delay planned renovations for the playground that residents thought would be completed in time for the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
In June, the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Division of Architecture discovered elevated levels of lead in the playground area of Mary Benson Park, located between Newark Avenue and Fourth and Merseles streets. Although an engineering firm has been hired to address the problem, fixing it is taking longer than the city – and parents – had anticipated. It might be spring before Benson Park, which the students of the Michael Conti School (P.S. 5) also use for recess, is reopened to the public.
The added delay has frustrated parents who were under the impression that site remediation would be completed quickly so the park’s playground could be outfitted with new equipment.

‘Ten or 11 months to remediate this small area seems like a long time.’ – Heather Teeters
“The city hasn’t really done much at all. Not a lot has happened and that is kind of disappointing,” said Felicia Noth, PTA president for PS 5. “For me, the real loss is that the park was a place that our community would go after school. Between 3 to 5, your kids could go over there and play for half an hour. You could see other people from the school. We went there everyday and it was a community place for the school.”
With the playground renovation project in limbo, the local PTA, neighborhood association, and community groups are now looking for other recreational spaces for kids to use while Mary Benson Park remains off limits.

‘A bit of an inconvenience’

According to the city web site, the land that is now Mary Benson Park was once used as a “dumping ground for [municipal] debris.”
Over the summer, the DPW and Division of Architecture discovered the elevated levels of lead when they did preliminary testing that was required before the new playground equipment could be installed.
Two out of four environmental tests conducted at the park found that sub-soils there exceeded standards set by the New Jersey Residential Soil Remediation Standards for lead. The samples were taken by an independent geotechnical and environmental materials testing consultant and were taken in four different locations within the playground area.
Shortly after these tests were conducted, the City Council gave the city approval to hire a Licensed Site Remediation Professional to run further tests and map out an environmental clean up plan for the park, which has a total of 2.95 acres.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was also notified of the contamination.
With this approval the city hired AMEC, an environmental remediation and civil engineering firm. According to city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill, AMEC has thus far “completed the first step in the remediation process, which is a Preliminary Assessment Report.”
Last month the City Council authorized a contract for AMEC to conduct the next phase of work, which will include the collection of soil samples from the park. Once these tests are completed and analyzed, according to Morrill, AMEC will recommend a land remediation plan to the city.
But it could take months for this work to be completed, which doesn’t sit well with parents.
For now, students from PS 5 are playing on the park’s baseball field, which Noth said is “okay” for children in first grade and above. She said the “dusty baseball field wasn’t ideal for kids in pre-K and kindergarten,” however.
“I used to take my kids to that park whenever the weather was nice,” said Third Street resident Heather Teeters. “Now, I either take them to parks that don’t have [playground equipment] and they ride their bikes or just run around, which is fine for my daughter, who is older. But my son is three. He kind of needs an actual playground, not just open space…Having this closed has been a little bit of an inconvenience. Ten or 11 months to remediate this small area seems like a long time.”
Downtown City Councilman Steven Fulop, whose Ward E includes Mary Benson Park, agreed.
“In 2009, I sponsored and passed a law on lead testing in day care centers as a result of learning about contamination in other parks. It’s obviously a very serious issue and can have long-term impacts if not dealt with aggressively,” said Fulop. Still, he added, “At a recent PTA meeting, DPW Director Rodney Hadley gave the parents a timeline of spring for when test results will be done, which was not acceptable to me or to the parents. We should be well on our way to remediation by then.”
Morrill, however, insisted, “The city is working as quickly as possible to identify the source of this contamination. But until the consultant completes this critical field work, we will not have a definitive timeline for completion. Our goal is to remediate the site thoroughly and expeditiously.”
In the meantime, she added, the office of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy and DPW are working with Superintendent of Schools Marcia Lyles to determine a suitable and safe location for Conti students to play during their recess.
These delays have put off plans to renovate the playground in Mary Benson Park and install new equipment.
The Conti PTA, the Village Neighborhood Association, and Fourth Street Arts have collectively been raising this money this year to make various improvements to the park, including the addition of a new playground area for kids. A portion of the park is also going to be designated for a garden.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at

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