A Love Park make-over?

April 20, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The happy couple visiting from Southern California smile hopefully at the stranger near Philadelphia’s famous big, red letters.

“Will you take our picture?” Kristle O’Dell asks Alan Greenberger, the City’s planning director. “Sure,” he says as O’Dell and her man, Donald Afari, take their places by the Love Statue.

Greenberger frequently cuts through the park on trips from his office to City Hall. He’s developed a sixth sense about who will ask for a photograph, he joked, and recently surprised a couple by saying, “Sure, I’ll take your picture!” before they had a chance to ask.

Needless to say, Love Park has been on the planning man’s mind. This summer, his staff will explore ways to improve the largely concrete square known for its fountain, attraction to skateboarders (even though skateboarding is not allowed there), and, of course, those big red letters.

“It seems like it should work,” Greenberger said, looking around at the benches, short walls, and coral colored planters suggestive of the Miami Vice set. “But it doesn’t.”

There’s a lot to like, Greenberger says – more, even, than the obvious landmarks and the diagonal view from City Hall to the Art Museum. “Boston just paid all that money for the big dig, in part to bury a parking garage under a park,” he says. “We’ve had it for 40 years.”

But the park seems to mostly be used by homeless people in need of a bench to rest on and skateboarders, who have left evidence of their love for Love Park in the form of chips along the edges of the low, concrete walls.

For one thing, there’s not enough connection to the street, Greenberger says, noting that the benches are all situated along the interior.

“I like the flying saucer,” he says, motioning at the circular structure that houses the Fairmount Park Visitors Center. But it needs help, he says. It’s hard to even tell that something is in it.

The time to think about improvements is now, Greenberger said, because some re-do is necessary: The fountain is leaking. And the parking garage’s pedestrian exits are “horrible.”

The city should take care of this park, which is well known around the world, Greenberger said. “Talk to a kid with a skateboard anywhere in the world about Philadelphia, and they will bring up Love Park,” he said.

Wait. Does this mean Greenberger has a soft spot for the wheeled-board set? He doesn’t want to make skating at the park legal – not every day. But he would like to see one day of amnesty – and celebration – each year.

“A festival once a year,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to see.”

Ben Jones, vice president of Philadelphia’s Skateboard Advocacy Network and owner of Wilimington’s Kinetic Skateboarding, sees an upside and a downside to a skateboard festival at Love Park.

“It would be cool, it would be a good event,” said Jones, a skateboarder for 15 years. “But at the same time, if people can only skate there once a year, it will whet skateboarders’ appetite for what they can’t have.”

This problem would be alleviated if the long-in-the-making Schuylkill River skate park were open at the other end of the Parkway, by the Art Museum, Jones said. For more information about that effort, click here.

The proposed skateboarding park would have many of the same elements that attract skateboarders who do street-style skateboarding to Love Park, Jones said. FDR Park, located beneath I-95 in South Philadelphia on land donated by the city, is terrific and also well-known by skateboarders, Jones said. But it appeals to those who do a different kind of skateboarding – transitional-style. The two styles are as different as mountain biking, street biking, and BMX, he said.

About four years ago, the Skateboard Advocacy Network presented the John Street administration with a compromise proposal to allow skateboarding at Love Park after 3 p.m. That way, Jones said, the lunch crowd could eat in peace, the tourists could have their photos taken without dodging skateboarders, and skateboarders could have use of the park. The proposal also included a pledge of $100,000 per year for 10 years from a corporate sponsor – DC Shoes – to repair any damage caused by skateboarding.

The Street administration rejected the proposal, Jones said. But if the Nutter team is re-examining the park and its uses, Jones said the Skateboard Advocacy Network will try again.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com.

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