Internet erupts in defense of plan for memorial playground

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In the hours following the deaths of her children last April, Amy Ambrusko knew one thing for certain: She wanted to build a treehouse-themed playground in Frick Park to honor 6-year-old Kate and 4-year-old Peter.

In the last couple of days, city Councilman Doug Shields has learned something else for certain: In the fast and furious landscape of social media, it's easy to find yourself squarely mired in a mess.

The stories of Mr. Shields and Ms. Ambrusko intersected Wednesday, when popular blogger Virginia Montanez, of www.thatschurch.com, urged her readers to contact Mr. Shields' office to express their displeasure with what she characterized as his opposition to the playground and of his staff member's treatment of Ms. Ambrusko.

That staff member, said Ms. Montanez, told Ms. Ambrusko that she should change the location of the proposed playground because "if everyone built a memorial in Frick Park it would look like a cemetery."

According to Ms. Montanez, the staff member continued, " 'Do you really want your kids' names to be part of this controversy?' "

Mr. Shields acknowledged that his staff member made an "inappropriate" remark and said that he called Ms. Ambrusko to apologize.

But Mr. Shields -- whose office was flooded with calls and e-mails and who was vilified in more than 100 comments on Ms. Montanez's blog -- insisted that he was also being mistreated.

For one, he said, Ms. Montanez never called him for comment before posting to her blog (Ms. Montanez tweeted Wednesday that she would not comment to the media about the story). He said that although community residents have expressed their concerns to him about parking and traffic for the playground, he's not necessarily opposed to it being located there because he doesn't have enough information.

And for that, he blamed the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

"They just lit a fire for me and a lot of other people," he said Thursday. "They came to the gate with a project nobody's prepared to discuss and what do you get? Hurt feelings and a lot of confusion."

Later Thursday, Mr. Shields issued a news release in which he stated, "The conservancy did not fulfill its obligation to communicate with all parties when it partnered with Amy Ambrusko to create a memorial for Kate and Peter. This grieving mom deserved better."

Mr. Shields' displeasure with the conservancy stems from a May 13 meeting with Regent Square residents in which he said that a representative from the conservancy presented the playground as "a done deal." He also criticized the conservancy for not properly communicating with the mayor's office, giving them a grade of "D-minus" for their handling of the playground.

Mike Sexauer, director of marketing for the conservancy, disputed that characterization. "I'm not sure why there was a perception that there was a memorial ready to go," he said. "That certainly was not the case. The truth is that we're so early in the process that there was very little to share."

As for its communication with Mr. Shields and the city, he added that, "We certainly look forward to improving the lines of communication with all parties."

Ms. Ambrusko envisioned that the playground would be built near the the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, where her daughter was in the first grade and where her son would have started kindergarten this year. Her children were killed when a car driven by her ex-husband ran off a New York highway.

Working with the conservancy, she identified a piece of land known as Turtle Park behind the school for the playground, envisioning it as "a playground no one's ever seen before."

According to the conservancy's website, Ms. Ambrusko has raised about $100,000 of an estimated $200,000 that would be needed to build the playground. Proposals for designs for the playground were due in April, and the organization is currently choosing which proposal they will accept.

The conservancy envisions the playground as the first of about a dozen "outdoor learning spaces" in Frick Park.

Mr. Shields complained that he heard about the playground only recently from Regent Square residents -- not from the conservancy, even though it had been in the works for months.

The main concern of some residents, said Barbara Hicks, who lives about a block from the proposed playground site, is traffic and parking.

"If you have this kind of venue and it's exciting and new, there's really no space for parking," she said. "You could probably park six to 10 cars alongside Turtle Park."

She also is worried that the playground might become a haven for drug users, noting that the site has drawn such activity in the past. "If you have a treehouse, what better place to hide the drugs," she said.

Mr. Shields expressed his gratitude toward Ms. Ambrusko for giving such a generous gift to the city and said he hoped a memorial would be built. "We will find appropriate places to do this," he said.

Ms. Ambrusko, who began writing a blog called Callapitter after the death of her children, wrote that "it never occurred to me that people might not want Kate and Peter's Treehouse" but that "it is vital that both sides speak out so we can figure out if this location is the best place for the treehouse or if it would be better to build it somewhere else."

The Regent Square Civic Association is holding an informational meeting June 7 at 6 p.m. at the Wilkins School Community Center.

Ms. Montanez urged her readers to attend the meeting, and Mr. Shields said that he would be attending as well.

After her conversation Tuesday with Mr. Shields, Ms. Ambrusko posted on her blog that she and the councilman would "try to move forward in a positive way, meaning everyone will get to say what they need to say and all sides of the story will be heard."

"Hopefully we can get everybody to take a deep breath and count to 10," said Mr. Shields. "We're just trying to get through another day here."


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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