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Magical thinking: Plans for Joey's Park take shape

Posted by Evan Allen  September 20, 2012 11:05 PM

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SketchingTheConcept -- matthew eagar.jpg
Photo by Matthew Eagar
Children working with designers at Winn Brook Elementary School on plans for new playground

It was pretty much unanimous: the new Joey’s Park in Belmont absolutely must have a zip line. How else would anyone get around? And it would not be complete without an elaborate tunnel system, a train, and rubber bridges that bounce like trampolines.

Oh – and a Double Tree Fort with a Black Hole Slide.

On Thursday, Winn Brook Elementary School students dreamed up a new playground to replace the fading Joey’s Park, built in 1989 in an old-fashioned community barn-raising in honor of Joey O’Donnell, a much-beloved Belmont boy who died of cystic fibrosis when he was just 12 years old.

“When you ask kids what they want on a playground, it’s kind of like asking them what they want for Christmas,” said John Dean, playground designer and cofounder at Ithaca-based Play-By-Design, who, with fellow cofounder Dave Iannello, brainstormed the new park with 440 children over the course of one whirlwind day. “They all have a million ideas.”

Not every idea made the cut – the floors will not be made out of Jello; there will be no 90-foot slide with a sheer drop. No sandwich-shooter, no chicken-shooter, and no zero-gravity dome.

But the design unveiled in the Winn Brook gym on Thursday night featured its own fantastical elements. A merry-go-round that generates electricity as it spins – enough to power two computers in the Winn Brook library. There will be a maze – a tough one, the children insisted – an obstacle course, monkey bars, a tot lot, and a double-wide slide. The children of Belmont might just start living in the tree fort.

“The magic of this thing is a huge priority for us,” said Dean, who helped to design the original Joey’s Park. “We’re trying to maintain the charm of the first playground.”

The design is still preliminary – Thursday, said Dean, was more about capturing “the soul” of the playground than it was about rendering a final drawing. There will certainly be tweaks, additions, subtractions.

But the soul is there.

“Joey wasn’t a kid who could run around too much. He would sit and he would contemplate. And there’s a lot of nooks and crannies in this park. He would love them. It’s so much like he is. Imagination abounds. I love it,” said Kathy O’Donnell, Joey’s mother.

The children love it, too. The corridors at Winn Brook are papered with the drawings they made on Thursday to help inspire Dean and Iannello. When the design was unveiled, they crowded around it, their fingers pressed to their favorite pieces of equipment.

“A black hole slide!” They gasped. “Whoaaah, trampoline!” There was some disappointment – one little boy sporting a mohawk stood in front of the drawing and said, forlornly and to no one at all, “No turtle?”

Dean and Iannello have been in the playground business for 27 years. They’ve built around 600 custom playgrounds, said Dean, all over the country. The farther you get from the ocean, he said, the more the kids want a pirate ship. In Kansas, they asked for a grain elevator and a combine; the kids in Cape Cod couldn’t be bothered with a lighthouse.

But Joey’s Park is a special project.

“We sort of see a circle turn,” said Dean. “It’s a beautiful playground. It’s part of the legacy of the community, not only in that it was built by the community, but then kids play on it. And then the kids – now 23 years old, or 25 or 26 – I have people I’ve met today – that grew up on it. So the playground becomes part of a legacy.”

It’s a legacy that Belmont seems proud to uphold. Last year, Joey’s Park was briefly shuttered after a safety inspection raised concerns. It was reopened on a temporary basis, and only after some equipment was removed. So the Friends of Joey’s Park sprang into action to figure out how to build a new playground, announcing plans to build anew earlier this month.

They do not yet have a price tag for how much the new park will cost – that will come in the next few weeks as Dean and Iannello refine their plans and come up with an estimate.

They’ll certainly save on labor: the park will be built by Belmont residents in a barn-raising tentatively planned for September 2013.

In the mean time, the community will work to raise money. A walk-a-thon is scheduled for Oct. 14: a two-mile route that will begin and end at Joey’s Park. It will be the first of many fundraisers.

“This,” said Joey’s father, Joe O’Donnell, as he stood in the Winn Brook gym surrounded by shrieking, ebullient children, “is what neighborhoods are about.”

Evan Allen can be reached at

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