City backs plan to expand park in Mt. Airy

Residents from Philadelphia’s leafy Northwest section may soon be able to enjoy six more acres of public parkland.

The city’s department of Parks and Recreation is interested in adding a small plot at the edge of East Mt. Airy to Fairmount Park’s 10,000-plus acre system.

Department officials made the announcement to more than 80 neighbors during a public meeting last night at Grace Episcopal Epiphany Church.

Commissioner Michael DeBerardinis said the land, located near the intersection of Cresheim Valley Road and Stenton Avenue, would help fulfill a number of the goals set forth in the city’s environmental sustainability plan, Greenworks Philadelphia.

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On a practical level, the city is looking to add 500 acres of new park space by 2015. But DeBeradinis said the parcel would also help make the city’s parks more interconnected.

“So you can start in your neighborhood from maybe a small green area and get to a park and then to one of the watershed parks. And then that watershed park takes you to the river and then the river to the region,” explained DeBerardinis.

But before the city can begin plugging the property into its plans for sustainability, it will first need to officially acquire it from its current owner.

Developer DeSouza Brown Inc., who in the past has considered building condominiums on the property, owns the land.

The Bala Cynwyd-based company, at this point, however, cannot build anything there, after agreeing to place a conservation easement on the land in 2006.

The move, negotiated over several years by members of the Wissahickon East Project, effectively opened up the opportunity for the city to acquire the six acres.

Mark Focht, executive director of Fairmount Park, said Brown has verbally committed to donating the property to the city, but that a number of documents still need to be signed.

The land transfer must be also be approved by city council through legislation.

“But I don’t foresee any pitfalls,” said Focht. “I expect the process to be pretty smooth.”

If everything does go as planned, Focht said Fairmount Park should start managing the property in either May or June of 2011. It would be the first piece of wild land the city has acquired in over 100 years, according to web site for the Wissahickon East Project.

Arlene Bennett, treasurer for the Wissahickon East Project, said she’s delighted the city has decided to incorporate the property into Fairmount Park.  She said the news was worth the wait.

“As my dad always said ‘the impossible you do immediately, the fantastic takes a little while longer.’” said Bennett

It’s not clear at this point what the land will ultimately look like or what it will be used for. What is clear is that there will have to be a massive clean-up effort. The property is littered with garbage, including a few abandoned cars.

To that end, the Wissahickon East Project will have a clean-up day Dec. 4 where they will work along Cresheim Valley Drive and Anderson Street near Woodbrook Lane. The group will have to wait until the property becomes public to begin cleaning the land itself.

Bennett said neighbors would be ready to dig in whenever that day comes.

“If we take something on, we take it to completion,” said Bennett.


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