A Gold Star for coming out on a frigid night

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Jan. 23

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Editor’s note: With the intention of expanding our coverage in 2009, PlanPhilly will be attending small and mid-size community meetings throughout the city, and perhaps the region, to get a handle on grassroots planning and zoning efforts targeting neighborhood revitalization, parks, main streets and business districts, land use and development. Drop us a line if you think there’s an issue being addressed by your community or neighborhood group that you think we ought to look into.  – Matt Golas

First of all, it’s Gold Star Park, not Gold Star Dog Park, OK? Let’s be clear about that right away.

Wednesday evening’s community meeting about the small “pocket park,” located on Wharton Street between 6th and 7th in South Philadelphia’s Passyunk Square neighborhood, was the first gathering to discuss improvements to Gold Star through a master plan process, facilitated by Philadelphia Green, part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the Philadelphia Department of Recreation.

The Friends of Gold Start Park’s notice of the meeting said that plan was aimed at creating “an easily adaptable design that serves the burgeoning populations of younger children,” teens, skateboarders and ball players, dog owners and “an aging population that enjoys quiet time” among the shade of towering sycamore trees.

“We cannot do this alone,” said Barbara McCabe, a city parks coordinator, in addressing the 20 or so attendees. “The bottom line is that resources are limited, so without community support these parks are not going to be what we want them and need them to be. Once we have a plan for the park, then we can move forward and try to find the resources.”

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Members of the Community Design Collaborative of AIA Philadelphia (CDC), which serves regional nonprofits, will draw up the plan, gratis. Leading the meeting was Claire Baker of Philadelphia Green, a part of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that works with more than 100 neighborhood groups across the city.

Held in a small building on the grounds of a larger park (Dickinson Square at 4th & Tasker) about a half mile away, it was an intimate gathering on a cold night. But it didn’t take long for things to get heated up, once the dogs arrived. Figuratively speaking, that is. The topic of dogs grabbed center stage at the meeting like it was a pork-lined pant cuff.

It seems there’s been a big influx of dogs in the neighborhood over the past few years, and Gold Star Park – about 25,000 square feet of open space tucked into a dense rowhouse neighborhood – is a convenient place to walk them. The problem is, most of those gathered agreed, that the park has been overrun by the dogs and, more to the point, the things dogs leave behind.

Should dogs be allowed in the park at all? Should a fenced dog run be built? Whose responsibility is clean-up, or the health hazards posed to children? There were other concerns, but the canine conundrum was clearly the priority issue – for some more than others. (One participant – we’ll call her “Suzy” – kept going back to the issue, again and again, and then again some more, even interrupting a few participants trying to move on. When other attendees urged her to let things proceed, Suzy got her South Philly up, claiming her property value is lower and her quality of life diminished because of the dog feces, and its pervasive, warm weather odor. “If I have to sue the city I will,” Suzy glowered. “You can leave if you want to,” she added, lowering the stink-eye in the direction of a couple of neighbors, who themselves were getting a bit snippy.)

Things calmed down fairly quickly, though.

“It’s our job to put the community into the plan,” Baker said, before leading the group through a process of identifying the park’s pros and cons. She then divided attendees up into three discussion groups, according to: the human uses of the park (summer concerts and events, lighting, making it more child-friendly household trash dumped into over-used park receptacles); beautification efforts (increasing the grass-to-asphalt ratio, benches and other park furniture, gardening and maintenance); and, well, dogs.

The meeting was an interesting example of a neighborhood with a mix of long-time residents and newcomers, and the tensions typically inherent between them. But McCabe and Baker both told PlanPhilly that a rise in dog ownership among urban homeowners has been a steadily growing problem nationally.

Meanwhile, McCabe acknowledged the limited amount of general attention the Recreation Department can give to Gold Star and other neighborhood parks around the city (seasonal maintenance for six months of the year), and that even that could easily go away in the next round of city budget cuts.

CDC volunteers will meet with a task force made up of some of the Gold Star Park neighbors in early March and again in May, along with other neighborhood stakeholders and representatives from city agencies, explained Tammy Leigh DeMent, also from Philadelphia Green.

Despite the flare-up over Spot and friends soiling the soil of the park, the meeting was productive and fairly upbeat. And the Gold Star park neighbors have a solid, experienced advocate in Philadelphia Green. Established by the Horticultural Society in 1974, it is one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the nation. Creating and restoring open spaces and parks in the city’s neighborhoods and in Center City, it was very green long before green became “Green.”

“We hope to unveil a plan for your park in July,” DeMent told the neighbors. “Master plans can be used as an outreach tool for funding and to identify some logical first steps. We also need to understand the limitations of the space. Gold Star is a relatively small park.”

Contact the reporter at www.ThomasJWalsh.info.

ON THE WEB:
Gold Star Park (city Recreation Dept. site): http://www.phila.gov/recreation/History_Gold_Star_Pa.html

Philadelphia Green: http://www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org/phlgreen/index.html

Passyunk Square Civic Association: http://www.passyunksquare.org/planning/

Community Design Collaborative: http://www.cdesignc.org/

PlanPhilly story on CDC’s “Senior Cyber Village”: http://www.planphilly.com/node/6197

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