By Kellie Patrick Gates
Fans of Penn Treaty Park yesterday filled the basement of Fishtown’s First Presbyterian Church to have their say on the waterfront park’s future.
What they said will help park advocates and the landscape architect they’ve hired craft a long-range master plan for the 7-acre swath that’s a rare, public waterfront space in Philadelphia.
Most of what attendees told the master plan steering committee and architect Bryan Hanes came as no surprise:
Make it easier for people to touch the water, if they want to. Improve access to the park from the neighborhoods. Protect the park’s history (it’s the place where William Penn is believed to have signed a treaty of friendship with the Lenape). Keep the park safe and clean. Make sure what happens at Penn Treaty helps it fit in with the larger plans already established for the Central Delaware.
And a biggie for long-time neighborhood residents: Bring back the old, covered pier. Or, if that’s not possible, build a simpler fishing pier.
But last night gave Hanes a sense of the communities’ priorities for their wish lists. And, he said, he heard a few new things – including the idea of a ferry to Petty’s Island. “That’s an interesting thing I wouldn’t have thought of,” he said. “I learned a lot. The people here – especially those who have been here a long time – they know the park better than I do.”
Participants spent the bulk of the evening divided into smaller groups of about eight. Each group brainstormed on the things the treasure about the park, the concerns they have about it, and their hopes for the park’s future.
Greg Wetmore grew up near Penn’s Landing and has lived in Fishtown for about 6 months. He was among the many who love the park for its proximity to the Delaware, and would like visitors to have even more access to the river.
“While I may not walk into the Delaware, just visually, it’s nice,” he said. “I like the option of touching it – it’s just so rare in the city.”
Jennifer Epstein, a member of the Philadelphia Outrigger Canoe Club, would like a place from which she and other club members can launch non-motorized boats.
Charlie Spross has lived nearly all of his 82 years in Fishtown, and remembers going to the park in the 1930s. He enjoys the feeling of being out in the open he gets there. And he’d really like to be able to sit on a pier once again.
Other ideas included the extremes of either adding more parking to accommodate more visitors or eliminating the current parking altogether, creating an area for special events, and establishing a concession to include, as one participant phrased it, “adult beverages.”
Hanes said anyone who could not attend the meeting, but would like to share their opinions, can take an on-line survey.
The Friends of Penn Treaty Park have seen the need for a long-range plan since 2006, said Win Akeley, Co-Chair of the Master Plan Steering Committee. The group received some grant money from the state, and realized future grant money would be spent more wisely if every project was a step toward a long-range goal. “It was time to have a vision for the park,” said Akeley, who purchased a home in the neighborhood after falling in love with the patch of trees, water and history at Delaware Avenue and Beach Street.
Not only will a blueprint guide spending, Akeley said, but having one will make it easier to show grant-givers that money donated to the park will make things happen.
The Master Plan will be paid for with about $100,000 in grants. About $22,500 came from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the rest from the William Penn Foundation. Additional fundraising will have to be done to implement the plan.
Thursday’s community input session – the first of three such meetings that will inform the master plan – was run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural. It was designed to give the park advocates and the landscape architect they’ve hired information about who uses the park, what they use it for, and what they would like to be able to do there in the future, said Alice Edgerton, PHS’s Philly Green project coordinator. PHS and Fairmont Park are among the Friends’ partners in planning.
Hanes, the landscape architect, has been working in the city for 10 years. He is currently doing work at three other Philadelphia parks: Clark Park in West Philadelphia, Logan Square, and Chestnut Street Park.
“The part of the profession that I value the most is the social thing – finding ways for people to come together and interact,” Hanes said. “Parks offer a great place for that to happen.”
Penn Treaty is special, he said, because it is sits near the confluence of three neighborhoods – Fishtown, Northern Liberties and Kensington – and it can bring people from all of those places together.
Penn Treaty has some other things going for it, too, he said. “The location on the waterfront. And the views from the park are some of my favorite in the city … the Ben Franklin Bridge, Center City and the skyline.” The nearby PECO power station “really offers the industrial past of the place,” he said.
And then there’s the park’s other, older past: The treaty under the great elm.
Akeley said that the historical significance, as well as the park’s shoreline and beauty, can be capitalized on in an effort to attract more visitors from more places.
Local historian Kenneth Milano, whose book, The History of Penn Treaty Park, was recently published, said Penn Treaty Park’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years, but it has been blessed with a string of strong, sometimes solo, advocates.
Until the treaty tree fell in 1810, no one saw much need for any other sort of memorial to the spot where the friendship treaty is thought to have been signed, he said.
The park was in private hands, owned by a family with a lumber yard, he said. It wasn’t until 1827 that the monument was dedicated. And despite efforts in the late 1840s and early 1850s, it wasn’t until City Councilman Thomas Meehan of Germantown’s 22nd Ward forged an alliance between Council, the Fairmount Park Art Association and the City Parks Association that the park opened in October 1893. Meehan, an internationally known botanist, was “an open space guy before this was a popular term,” Milano said. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people attended, and newspapers around the nation carried the story.
In 1893, Henry C. Merritt, a local resident from a family of wharf builders, became the first superintendent. He died in 1917, but not before meeting 7-year-old Henry C. Kriese, who became the park’s biggest advocate in the 1940s, and saw the two-thirds expansion to its present-day size. Kriese died in 1990, but not before inspiring John Connors, a park advocate who runs the on-line Penn Treaty Museum.
Despite advocates and love from the community, the Park has gone through a cycle of renovation and decline, Milano said.
In modern times, “it was partly because the neighborhood also declined,” he said.
“When I-95 came through in the 1960s, it isolated the park even more than Delaware Avenue had in the 1910s,” he said. “And then a lot of industry started to go south, and it became desolate. Juvenile delinquents would roam the park and destroy it.”
But now, Milano said, the neighborhoods have improved and the park “is the best it’s ever looked in years,” he said. “There’s new blood in the community that is socially active, and they’ve mixed with the old timers who have always advocated for the park.”
Still, Milano said, the I-95 and Delaware Avenue barrier to the park is a drag.
Things are likely to get even more challenging when several I-95 interchanges go through construction, Akeley said. In fact, the streets that one can take to get to the park may change, he said.
Possible solutions could include crosswalks and traffic lights or traffic slowing devices, he said, and even a trail of fishes, painted on the road or sidewalk, could help people find their way to the park.
Joan Blaustein, director of environment, stewardship and education for Fairmount Park, said that every idea was welcome at Thursday’s meeting – no matter how simple or complicated, inexpensive or pricey.
But at the second public meeting, set for April 30, choices will have to be made, she said. For example, she said, a connection to the river’s edge could be through a pier, but research might show that the cost – and the necessary permits – are prohibitive. About two-thirds of the park is open space that some people may want to stay as-is, she said. Others may want some of it to be planted with shade trees, or become home to a performance space, so balance must be found.
Some ideas may just not work at the park, she said. “It’s only 7 acres, so it’s not a likely spot for a soccer field.”
The public’s priorities will lead to a draft of the master plan that will be presented for review at a June public meeting, and then the final version will be unveiled in September, Haynes said.
Blaustein, from Fairmont Park, said no one knows how long it will take to implement the plan – it depends on funding.
Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.