‘Blitz Build’ gives Sharswood’s 100 year old Athletic Rec Center a makeover

A recreation center in North Philadelphia got an extreme makeover this week, thanks to a group of architects who were in town for an annual conference. 

Athletic Recreation Center was built in 1914 and with about 100 kids coming through every day, community members said the place was in need of sprucing up. 

On Wednesday, the whole building smelled of fresh paint as about 150 volunteers worked to renovate five rooms in about 12 hours, including turning a dilapidated staircase into a reading nook and applying fresh coats of paint to chipping walls.

“We had cabinets that were falling down, a stove that smelled of gas,” said Athletic’s facility supervisor, Brian Sell. “They took all that out, they’re putting in brand new cabinets, shelving units – everything.”

The one-day “blitz build” was organized by AEC Cares. The nonprofit brings architects, engineers and contractors together for a service project the day before the annual American Institute of Architects conference, which was held in Philadelphia this week. AEC Cares works to secure funding and sponsorships for materials. Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and volunteer contractors prepared the site by ripping out and replacing old flooring and lighting. 

AEC Cares also partnered with the city-based Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit that provides pro bono design services to other nonprofits to help get renovation projects off the ground in their early stages.  

The collaborative’s Heidi Segall Levy said it is working with Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department to bring improvements to recreation centers. 

“There are several other buildings in the city that are very similar to Athletic, built at the same time,” said Levy. “So we’re hoping that we can use Athletic as a model or a prototype for at least those buildings and maybe some other buildings that are similar to it.”

Mayor Jim Kenney is also proposing a half-billion dollar plan to make major capital improvements to these facilities, such as new heating and cooling systems, but that plan is tied to his controversial tax on sugary drinks. The Kenney administration says a $300 million bond issue for the plan would be repaid with revenue from the tax. However, its fate in City Council is uncertain. 

The collaborative’s work with Parks and Recreation is separate from Kenney’s proposal, but Levy said the cosmetic improvements of a volunteer-driven “blitz build” would compliment that initiative. 

“Major infrastructure upgrades need to be accompanied with visual impact,” she said. 

Visual impact is exactly what Diane Scott is expecting for the children she greets every day as the coordinator for Athletic’s after-school programs. 

The recreation center is not far from where the Philadelphia Housing Authority is embarking on a sweeping, half-billion dollar plan to remake a substantial portion of the neighborhood known as Sharswood. In March, PHA demolished two of the three high-rise towers that made up its Norman Blumberg apartment complex where many children who attend programs at Athletic used to live. 

Scott hopes the recreation center renovations and other changes will encourage those children to pay it forward. 

“If I see this here getting done, that means I can go ahead and make another step, too to make myself better because they making it better here for my community,” said Scott.

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