‘Centennial Commons’ partners break ground on new Parkside park project

The Parkside neighborhood celebrated the groundbreaking of the first phase of Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Centennial Commons project, an initial $4 million investment located between Parkside Avenue and the Centennial District of West Fairmount Park, with excitement.

The project will make the edge of the park from Belmont Avenue to 41st Street more attractive for its residents. Neighbors were sincerely happy to see that in six months they will have four gardens, mimicking the porches of the beautiful Flemish-style houses across the avenue, with benches, and even swinging benches, to hangout.

Old time neighbors like Tom Clark, 69, and Michael Burch, 58, remember that when they were kids they spent all day playing in the park. It’s not like that anymore, they said, because parents won’t let their kids come out.

“I think it’s fear, and real fear, that something would happen to your children,” said Burch, who lives on Viola Street. “It is dark, and crossing is at your own risk. It has been like this for years. They need to find a way to slow down traffic down here because it’s very, very dangerous.”

Neighbors were happy to find out that Fairmount Park Conservancy is teaming up with different city agencies to address these issues.

The Philadelphia Streets Department will invest $50,000 to create safer pedestrian crossings and to calm traffic. The Philadelphia Water Department provided $1 million in funding for seven rain gardens that will capture stormwater. The Philadelphia Department of Commerce committed over $250,000 to improve the appearance of Parkside Avenue, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation will maintain the landscaping and public amenities.

The “Parkside Neighborhood Edge,” designed by Studio Bryan Hanes, will cover 67,000 square feet of existing parkland with 68 new shade trees and more than 42 species of perennials, grasses, and shrubs. It will also include pedestrian lighting and a better access from the neighborhood into the park, and from there to the Smith Memorial Arch, the Please Touch Museum, and the John Welsh Memorial Fountain.

But even though everyone at the ceremony was looking forward for the park’s improvements, there was plenty of realism in the air. “Behind the beautiful facade of Parkside Avenue, sits a neighborhood that has suffered from years, and years of disinvestment,” Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation’s and Viola Street Residents Association’s Joyce Smith said at the ceremony.

The Centennial Commons project is part of Reimagining the Civic Commons, a five site, three-year, and $11 million initiative jointly funded by the William Penn Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. At Centennial Commons, Fairmount Park Conservancy has been working in partnership with local community organizations such as Centennial Parkside CDCParkside Association of Philadelphia, and Business Association of West Parkside.

Still, Smith said most of the neighbors are curious to see how the project is actually going to look. “We get a lot of promises saying this is going to happen in the community and they never come to fruition, so people have a lot of doubt,” Smith said.

“There’s a misconception that we don’t use the park, but we do,” Smith said. “When we get up in the morning – Saturday morning, Sunday morning – it’s jammed with all kinds of sports and activities.”

Burch said on weekends you see barbecues going on, families making picnics and people walking dogs, “but not enough.”

Smith knows the amenities are going to make the park much more attractive, but she hopes the investments lead to more attention on the neighborhood’s needs, such as home improvements, and not to displacement.

“That is a concern for us,” Smith said. “But if we are going to try to do anything to make sure it’s affordable and to preserve it for existing residents, we’ve got to start doing something now.”

Clark and Burch are also concerned. “The neighborhood is changing, we’ll just have to wait and see,” Clark said. “It is a real fear,” Burch said. “We now have Parkside CDC, and hopefully that brings with it some political protection. But you hear people say ‘this isn’t for us,’ unfortunately. And I don’t believe that, but you do hear it.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and various city and state officials attended the groundbreaking ceremony. And most of them, in one way or another, addressed the neighbor’s fears.

State Senator Vincent Hughes, who has an office across the park, said the most important question was how to increase the support for the neighborhood and “to revitalize and turn those communities around, but turn them around in a way that the folks who worked, lived, and suffered, in some cases, in those neighborhoods for decades, get a chance to benefit from that revitalization.”

Mayor Kenney said the project would provide city jobs for the neighbors, making them eligible, after 9 months, to become full-time city employees with benefits and healthcare. “It’s just not the park and what it looks like, it’s not just what it does for the community and for the neighbors, it’s what it can do for economic development and job creation,” Kenney said.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said that there’s always the question of impact with an investment like this, but “when you’re able to see the leadership capacity in the neighborhood built, the way we saw it build throughout this process, it gives me tremendous confidence we’re doing this at the right time, in the right place,” Ott Lovell said.

“This project is for the neighborhood,” Fairmount Park Conservancy’s executive director Rick Magder said in opening the ceremony. And although he recognizes the resident’s fear of displacement, he said the other option is to do nothing. “The best we can do as a non-profit is to do our absolute best to manage that process and to hire people from the neighborhood, and work with the neighborhood to improve their conditions, but in a way that ensures that all people benefit,” Magder said.

Magder announced Seravalli, Inc,  as the general contractor. Andrew Seravalli, the project manager, told PlanPhilly they will begin construction after a couple of meetings with Fairmount Park Conservancy and that they have six months to get it done.

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