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Park upgrading access for handicapped

County vows to make Cooper River Park `100 percent accessible'

Thursday, May 20, 2004
Lavinia DeCastro

On any given summer afternoon, Scott Kelley can be found traveling along the Cooper River.

But unlike most Cooper River Park visitors, Kelley has access to only half the park.

That's because Kelley, 38, has multiple sclerosis and needs a scooter to move around. The lack of curb cuts at a busy intersection means he can't reach any portion of the park west of Cuthbert Boulevard without going on the street.

"Apparently, this is the only part of the park we get to visit," the Haddon Township resident said.

Thanks to Kelley's complaints, that will change soon.

The county is seeking state Department of Transportation approval and investigating how much it will cost to install cuts so wheelchair-bound residents can reach the bike path along South Park Drive, said Dominick Vesper Jr., Camden County's director of public works.

"We're working on it," Vesper said. "In the next two months, we're going to make (the park) 100 percent accessible."

The 346-acre park, the second largest in the county system, stretches from Route 130 to Grove Street and runs through Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Collingswood and Haddon Township. Cuthbert marks the dividing line between the park's eastern and western portions.

The county resolved some accessibility issues when it installed curb cuts at the intersection of South Park Drive and Cuthbert Boulevard as part of its Cuthbert Boulevard Corridor Improvement Project.

The $500,000 project included streetscape improvements along Cuthbert Boulevard between South Park Drive and Emerald Boulevard, North Park Drive traffic light upgrades and the installation of a new traffic light on South Park Drive, Vesper said.

The traffic light was needed because of the number of accidents there.

"That's a very popular park," Vesper said. "There was definitely a need to control traffic at that intersection."

The state paid for about 25 percent of the project, Vesper said.

The improvements made it possible for wheelchair-bound pedestrians on the bike path in the eastern portion of the park to cross both South Park Drive and Cuthbert Boulevard.

But once they reach the western side of Cuthbert Boulevard at its intersection with South Park Drive, there is simply nowhere else to go.

The closest a wheelchair-bound person can get to the western portion of the park is a roughly 6-feet-by-6-feet concrete island that sits on a triangular stretch of grass formed by three intersecting roads.

"When they have the fireworks over there, you can't get to it," Kelley said of the county's annual July Fourth celebration.

"They've paved this road twice already and they never put in curb cuts."

Kelley also says the newly installed pedestrian-crossing buttons on the traffic lights are hard to reach.

"I can reach it, but there's people that can't," Kelley said.

Vesper said the buttons comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but they will be moved so they are easier to reach.

County and state engineers met with Kelley on May 5 to discuss the improvements.

Kelley is the only person ever to complain about the park's accessibility issues, Vesper said.

But he's not the only one who has trouble attending events at the park.

"Cooper has many problems," said Kurt Kean, a 43-year-old Woodbury resident. "I'm blind and I've gone through some trouble getting there without help."

That's why Cathy Zinman, a 64-year-old Pine Hill resident, stopped visiting Cooper River Park three years ago.

"I used to go, but then it became real difficult in my wheelchair," said Zinman, who became disabled after a stroke in 1996. "It just became so difficult that it lost its enjoyment."

Kean and Zinman are co-facilitators of a group of Access Link riders known as the Monday Morning Advocacy Network.

According to Caren Fishman, Camden County's Visitor Services chief, the county has been working on making its parks accessible for the past 15 years.

In 1995, the county built Challenge Grove in Cherry Hill, the only county park that is 100 percent wheelchair accessible.

One year later, the park got an award from the New Jersey Commission on Individuals with Disabilities, Fishman said.

Accessibility improvements have also been made at Haddon Lake, Newton Lake, New Brooklyn, Von Nieda and Berlin parks, she said.

Cooper River Park improvements started last year.

During the summer, the county replaced all the equipment in the park's playground with equipment accessible to wheelchair-bound children.

The park's three pavilions, picnic tables and even the dog park are also wheelchair accessible, Fishman said.

"Our next area of attack is our bike path issues," Fishman said.

The park's 3.7-mile bike path is not entirely handicapped accessible. Portions of it, like the section across the Cuthbert Boulevard bridge, are too narrow for someone in a wheelchair to navigate.

"We're seriously studying how to safely get pedestrians across Cuthbert and from the north side to the south side of the park," Fishman said.

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