The next step in creating a unique playground at Sunset Beach Park, the bay beach in Seaside Heights, was completed Wednesday with a formal presentation to the borough council in advance of receiving state funding for the effort.
The “inclusive” park is aimed at providing fun recreational playground equipment that can be accessed by both typical children and those with limited mobility or developmental conditions. In addition to many of the common playground staples like swings and spinning animal attractions, the playground would include sensory activities for children with autism and similar disabilities, plus wheelchair access to rides and revised grading to make the park accessible for all.
The borough would also construct a new bathroom facility near the park, as required under Jake’s Law, an initiative, a 2018 measure that incentivized counties to build inclusive playgrounds for children. For the first time, Jake’s Law funding is being made available to municipal governments, with Seaside Heights officials planning to combine what is expected to be a grant between $500,000 and $750,000 with a already-approved grant of $100,000 to create the park. The borough would be responsible for funding just a small portion of the project – about $87,000 – which would replace a playground that has mostly been removed due to damage incurred over the years.
The playground would be located where the swingset and “pirate ship masts” from the existing playground are located along the bay beach near the Stewart’s Root Beer stand and dock.
A previous hearing, required by the state, took place last month to solicit public comments. An updated presentation was provided to the council this week. Jennifer Gorini, the borough planner, said two comments from residents were received endorsing the plan. Since then, Gorini and her team have been working to create the design layout of the playground.
“We have been working closely with General Recreation Inc., we did a site visit and worked with them to pick out specific equipment that would be a good fit for inclusive users of this site,” Gorini said.
The state requires that new restrooms be installed at the bay beach before funding is released for playground construction. Borough Administrator Christopher Vaz said that due to changes in building codes, most companies that produce pre-fabricated restrooms no longer do business in New Jersey, however plans based on a previous facility installed along the boardwalk were able to be used as a basis for the bay beach bathrooms.
“I’ve already had the architect design it,” Vaz said. “We have a set of plans ready to go, so we’d just have to find a place for it up by Stewart’s.”
The playground itself will include many features that can be found in most playgrounds like swingsets, however they will be designed specifically to be accessible – and fun, of course – for all children, disabled or not. A spin-around attraction would even allow wheelchairs to be loaded into the carrier for a quick ride, and “transfer decks” would likewise allow wheelchair access to swings and slides.
A major part of the construction effort would be to re-grade the site so it is easily accessible to all, said project engineer Mark Lennon, who prepared an environmental impact statement required by the state.
“In this case, the project site was developed with a better foundation which addresses both the ADA compliance issue and the environmental issue,” said Lennon. “We have a barrier-free access between the boardwalk and the playground surface, and it has the benefit of getting us up out of the water by about 24-inches. The instances of flooding like we’ve seen in the last few weeks would be mitigated.”
Lennon found no adverse environmental impacts to either land or wildlife that would be caused by the construction of the playground.
“Many parks will be out in an area that will be more wooded than our particular site,” he said. “We found that there was no impact to vegetation because you have an existing playground site that is actively used by residents. There is no impact to wildlife.”
The playground, though built on a sandy surface, would feature “unitary surfacing,” a synthetic safety-oriented outdoor surface, said Gorini.
The playground would also be covered 20 percent by shading, a requirement of Jake’s Law, and would include picnic tables, seating and a quiet play area in addition to the traditional equipment. The site would come with a nautical theme, with equipment in the shape of various sea creatures, and a re-built “pirate ship mast” to replace the metal ones current installed at the site.
Gorini said the state expects to award Jake’s Law funding in April, though the Seaside Heights project would require the construction of the accessible restroom before the funding could be released. The specific amount of funding will depend on how many municipalities apply, and whether there are other inclusive-style parks in the local area.
“Green Acres want these to be two-year projects,” Gorini said.
The plan was endorsed by Mayor Anthony Vaz, who has been an advocate for reviving the bayfront area of town with new docks, a new planned boat ramp, the restroom facilities as well as its new name, “Sunset Beach.”
“It seems like this playground will be paramount to our future, and I think it is going to be great,” he said.
The term “Jake’s Law” refers to Jake’s Place, a playground in Cherry Hill, which was created in honor of Jacob Cummings-Nasto, who passed away due to complications of heart surgery at the age of two, and enjoyed spending time at a local park.