A Prickly Playground Parents complain about a new wood surface at some D.C. parks.

Mulch Madness: Parents say the new wood chips look—and act—like splinters.
Darrow Montgomery

Maria Cardona hates “the stuff.”

That’s her name for the wood-like compound that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation recently sprayed all over Walter Pierce Park and Kalorama Park.

During the last week of August, a bed of light-colored, thin shards replaced a blanket of much larger but less dense chips, which had the coloring and almost-hollow quality of wood you’d find washed up on a beach.

To the city, which refers to the new material as “Engineered Wood Fiber,” the surfacing is a gift to taxpayers, intended to provide a cushion for anybody who falls at the playgrounds.

“It’s for safety,” says DPR spokesman John Stokes. “It’s for the kids.”

But to Cardona and other parents and nannies who frequent the parks, “the stuff” is at best bothersome, and, from the look and feel of things, maybe even dangerous.

“First, the stuff is a nuisance, and just from looking at it you don’t really realize how big a nuisance it is,” says Cardona, an Adams Morgan resident who lives near both parks and frequents them with her two young children. “It sticks to everything, and you can’t get rid of it. My daughter brought a blanket that fell on the ground a week ago. I haven’t been able to get every wood chip out of there.

“But also,” Cardona continues, “the stuff splinters like wood, and has dangers because of that. Kids at playgrounds throw things. They did it with the old [weightless wood chunks], and you told them to stop because that was an issue of behavior and manners. Now, it’s a safety issue, because you actually have to worry that your kid’s going to hurt somebody. You see somebody throwing that, we have to become our mothers and yell: ‘Hey, stop or you’re going to put somebody’s eye out!’ I’m not a fan.”

Tracey Conaty, who brings her two-and-a-half-year-old twins to Pierce, says she’s “grateful” that the city answered citizens’ pleas for new chips at the playground.

But...

“Splinters and shavings and little kids are not a good mix,” Conaty says. “Kids have their hands all over this stuff—for my kids it’s making pizzas. And the really little kids will put the chips in their mouths. Seems like the city didn’t consider the end use. These chips are fine for gardens and the area around trees, but for a playground they are a hazard.”

“There’s definitely grumbling out there,” says Mindy Moretti, an advisory neighborhood commissioner whose bailiwick includes Pierce Park.

Moretti says that neighborhood groups, including Friends of Pierce Park, had in the past organized and funded the procurement and installation of what she calls “the wood carpet,” which costs about $3,000 for the required load of 100 cubic yards of material and lasts about two years.

But, due to the logistical headache of recruiting an army of volunteers to get the job done, plus massive improvements in the responsiveness of parks-and-rec officials, the locals asked the city to take care of the park’s resurfacing. She says DPR told her that they’d already scheduled a redo of Kalorama Park, located on Columbia Road NW, and so they’d throw some chips from the same load on Pierce, on Adams Mill Road NW.

Moretti, who remembers a time years ago when DPR did nothing for taxpayers—all the playground equipment at Pierce Park installed in 2000 came from neighborhood dollars and elbow grease, she says—remains grateful for the city’s efforts to help when her constituents contacted the agency.

As for the execution, well...

“Everybody I know absolutely appreciates that [DPR] brought chips,” she says. “But these aren’t the chips we thought we were getting. Everybody assumed it would be the same kind we used to have. We all joked when [the new material] first got installed that it made the park look like a giant hamster cage. Then people started complaining about it sticking to everything, and splintering. It doesn’t look like much thought went into the material we ended up with. It looks like splinters.”

I visited Pierce Park recently and heard nannies complaining about the new wood covering splintering all of their children. A day later, I told a friend about the nannies’ concerns, and she told me her 4-year-old daughter had just gotten a splinter at Pierce.

I picked up a few handfuls of the stuff at Pierce, and, coming from a generation that grew up on playgrounds with blacktops and all sorts of high-rise jungle gyms and scary merry-go-rounds that have long since been lawyered out of existence, I was surprised at how sharp and edgy all the chips were, especially when compared to the big, chunky chips they replaced. It seems as if someone had set the wood chipper to “Toothpick.”

“The old wood was cushiony, and those big pieces felt safe,” says Cardona. “I loved those things! I didn’t know I loved them until they put in this stuff.”

Stokes, of DPR, says he is not aware of any complaints to his agency about the Kalorama or Pierce Park surface. He says the city went with the new chips because the old stuff was harder on folks in wheelchairs or those using walkers.

His agency, he says, installed the covering with the best of intentions.

“We don’t do things thinking, ‘Hey, what’s going to make people mad?’” Stokes says. “Everything we do, it’s something for the kids. It’s ‘let’s do something good for the community!’ But sometimes that just blows up in your face.”

Moretti says that locals should expect the new surface to stick around for “18 months to two years.”

Well, barring an injury or a lawsuit.

 

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.

Correction: In this column, John Stokes, spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, told staff writer Dave McKenna that the wood fiber used at Pierce Park and Kalorama Park came from Zeager Bros. Inc. of Middletown, Pa. Zeager Bros. officials protested that assertion to the city. Stokes now says the wood fiber at the Pierce and Kalorama playgrounds was manufactured by Eastern Shore Wood Forest Products in Salisbury, Md.

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