East Park’s hidden lake habitat, a site for Discovery

Walk up a drive paved with soft blue bricks, through a chain link fence, and up a hill tucked into East Fairmount Park, just off 33rd Street. At the top, a reveal: The glint of sunlight on water, the sound of leaves in soft wind above the din of rush hour traffic in the distance. It’s a little slice of wilderness in Strawberry Mansion, where a hidden 37-acre reservoir has turned into habitat for wildlife.

This is the West Basin of the East Park Reservoir, a 130-year-old piece of Philadelphia’s water system that after five decades of disuse has become a welcome refuge for migratory birds. In the coming years it will serve a new function: Philadelphia Outward Bound and Audubon PA have partnered to create The Discovery Center, a place focused on outdoor education, leadership skills, and environmental stewardship for Philly-area youth.

The Discovery Center, years in the making, has raised $16 million of its $16.7 million fundraising goal, including $1 million awarded this spring as part of the $11 million Reimagining the Civic Commons grant package from the John S. and James L. Knight and William Penn foundations. After long negotiations, the city executed a 40-year lease with Audubon and Outward Bound last year that makes the whole project possible. It was also a key site identified in The New Fairmount Park plan, authored in 2014 by PennPraxis for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Few people get to experience the reservoir these days since it is under lock and key for security reasons, though many older Strawberry Mansion residents remember enjoying it in their younger days. The Fairmount Park Conservancy, which is coordinating the Civic Commons initiative, hosted a tour Wednesday evening with Audubon and Outward Bound to give people a rare glimpse at this special spot before construction begins.

As the sun hung low in the sky, the lake was washed with golden light and quiet over this hidden, and feral landscape. Standing there it’s hard to imagine you’re in heart of one of America’s biggest cities, but easy to see the draw.

East Park Reservoir from Google Earth
East Park Reservoir from Google Earth

The West Basin is kept at roughly eight feet deep, its steep embankment rung with trees. Since being decommissioned as part of our drinking water system, natural systems have reclaimed the reservoir as a lake.  

Of the reservoir’s four sections, just one remains in use as part of the city’s water system. Three other zones have turned into quiet refuges for different types of birds – the West Basin’s deeper water welcomes diving ducks, marshland species like egrets prefer a shallow zone to the east, while a third drained area that’s become forested welcomes warblers that prefer woodland. Birders have spotted more than 130 species here.

Though construction of the Discovery Center and work planned by the Philadelphia Water Department will change and temporarily disrupt this area, the focus is actually to more deliberately protect as much habitat as possible and emphasize conservation. There will be zones of tranquility where public access can be closed during sensitive seasons – like nesting time – and light and noise controls will be strict. It also helps that spring and fall are the biggest birding seasons while summer will be a time when the center’s programming is busiest.

The new Discovery Center will be built on a sliver of land between the reservoir and Reservoir Drive, across the street from Smith Playground. The still-conceptual schematics by Digsau and CVMNEXT for the building, and LRSLAstudio and D.I.R.T. studio for landscaping, prioritize sustainable design that harmonizes with the environment. Here both nonprofits will be able to serve more students  – Outward Bound’s programs for middle and high school students, and Audubon’s for a younger set. In between there will also be community-driven uses for near-neighbors, and days when the City programs the site.

It’s easy to imagine the magic that can happen at this vast site as young people explore and experience nature. A heron flew overhead while we paused on the grassy spot where the Discovery Center will be built – a reminder of that old adage, nature always wins. Here, how lucky for us all.

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