$11 million in foundation grants announced for five parks

What can $11 million buy in park projects?

A new collaborative initiative announced Monday by the John S. and James L. Knight and William Penn foundations hopes $11 million in new public space grants would help realize five long-planned new park spaces.

Funders anticipate these grants will help support new, accessible civic spaces in neighborhoods that have not yet enjoyed Philly’s recent public space boom, from a section of the Reading Viaduct to a segment of the Schuylkill River Trail, from the wide expanses of East and West Park to a neighborhood park on Germantown Avenue.

The hope is to create new public spaces that serve near-neighbors and draw visitors, support community-driven revitalization efforts, create new opportunities for residents to engage with nature and one another, and put Philly on the map as a testing ground for fresh thinking about urban parks.

The nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy leads the initiative, called Reimagining the Civic Commons. The Conservancy will provide project management assistance, encourage collaboration among project teams, help develop programming, and study the impact of the various interventions.

Rail Park Phase 1, Callowhill: $1 million

The first phase of the Rail Park will convert the Noble Street Spur into a mini-rails-to-trails park designed by Studio Bryan Hanes.

It is the start of what Rail Park advocates like Friends of the Rail Park hope will become a long linear park built out of the disused Reading Viaduct. This first phase is estimated to cost about $9.5 million. So far project-funding commitments include $1.8 million from the City, $500,300 from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and an earlier $750,000 from the William Penn Foundation. The largest source would be $3.5 million in requested Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) funding from the state.

Center City District’s Paul Levy called this new $1 million grant “hugely helpful” and noted that the enthusiasm for the Rail Park is strong. Hopefully, he said, this money will help attract additional project funding. Should the RACP grant come through the budget gap would stand at $2 million. Center City District will help manage construction.

Centennial Commons, Parkside: $6 million

The Centennial District in East Parkside has tremendous legacy park assets but the area needs new interventions to knit these pieces together. Fairmount Park Conservancy engaged Studio Bryan Hanes to develop designs for Centennial Commons, an ambitious new series of park spaces within the Centennial District that will create a node of family-friendly activities between Memorial Hall and the Please Touch Museum, Kelly Pool, and the Philadelphia Zoo.

Phase one of the Centennial Commons is anticipated to cost $7.5 million, and includes streetscape improvements along the Parkside edge, including rain gardens, informal gathering spaces, and improved connectivity for Parkside neighbors while signaling a gateway to the Centennial District.

It also includes a “youth zone” next to Kelly Pool, featuring rolling and rustic play areas, a water path that becomes a skating circuit in winter, water jets for hot days, and a picnic grove. A subsequent phase would add a “teen zone” where a tree grove would host hammocks and in-ground trampolines, amphitheater seating, climbing nets, and oversized swings.

Penn State researchers will work with the Fairmount Park Conservancy on this project to study how the new park improvements reshape park use, including how parkside neighbors engage with the interventions and measure the larger social and economic impact.

Bartram’s Mile, Kingsessing: $250,000

As the Schuylkill River Trail extends south it will have to jump river at the Grays Ferry Crescent and continue down the western shore of the Schuylkill. That trail segment, Bartram’s Mile, has been in development for years. Once built, it will traverse an ex-industrial landscape from about Grays Ferry Avenue through Bartram’s Garden to 56th Street. 

Schuylkill River Development Corporation’s Joe Syrnick confirmed that the Bartram’s Mile project has $6.7 million in funding commitments from city, state, and philanthropic sources. He hopes the project can be put out to bid soon and that contractor responses come back in the estimated $6 million range. 

Mark Focht, First Deputy Commissioner for Parks & Recreation, confirmed that the design team at Andropogon is nearly finished with construciton drawings, and the project should begin construction this summer.

Discovery Center, Strawberry Mansion: $1 million

The East Fairmount Park Reservoir in Strawberry Mansion is already an important urban bird habitat, and now thanks to a collaborative project by the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound more people will be able to experience this hidden treasure

Audubon and Outward Bound have partnered to create an outdoor education center at the site and create new public access to the lake. The Discovery Center is geared at building leadership skills and cultivating environmental stewardship among city kids.

The $1 million grant will go toward the developing and programming the new Discovery Center.

Lovett Park and Library, Mt. Airy: $1.75 million

Conceptual placemaking plan of Lovett Library Park | Community Deisgn Collaborative
(Community Design Collaborative)

Lovett Memorial Library and Lovett Park on Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy will get $1.75 million toward ongoing plans to make the library and its adjacent park a space to bring East and West Mt. Airy neighbors together.

This spring construction will start on the first phase: A new plaza along the Germantown Avenue edge of the park with stone pavers and movable seating. That project has Art Commission approval and previous funding commitments from Councilwoman Cindy Bass and the William Penn Foundation. Early design concepts for the park were developed by the Community Design Collaborative for Mt. Airy USA.

Lovett Memorial Library was selected also one of five branch libraries which will be overhauled thanks in large part to a $25 million gift from the William Penn Foundation to the Free Library’s 21st Century Libraries Initiative. That gift was announced last September. As the Lovett Library expands and improves, additional park improvements, like a new reading garden, nature play area, and performance space which will support programming by the project’s partners: the Free Library and Mt. Airy USA.


“We’ve got nearly $8 million of our money, your money, in these projects,” said Mayor Michael Nutter at Monday’s announcement event, noting that this new initiative confirms the value of those public commitments.

The William Penn Foundation has already put about $7 million toward these projects, in many cases nearly from the project’s earliest conceptual phases.

For the William Penn Foundation’s executive director, Laura Sparks, the initiative is about leveraging both the city’s progressive momentum as well as our legacy assets in ways that are inclusive and equitable.

Shawn McCaney, who directs the William Penn Foundation’s placemaking initiatives, added that the foundation sees part of its job as attracting more outside funding and partners to its work in and around Philly.


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