South Philly’s long-neglected Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park is getting a shot of funding to advance an ambitious $250 million master plan that aims to transform the sprawling green over the next decade or more.
On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney and other officials announced $4.5 million will go toward the design of a new welcome center and event space, as well as a new three-acre playground imagined as a destination for families in the region.
The funding boost comes as officials report usage of the 348-acre park is up nearly 50% from pre-pandemic levels. Kenney highlighted the cultural importance of the park, among the largest in the city and by far the largest in South Philadelphia.
“I would ride my banana bike down here and fish,” said Kenney, who was raised in South Philly. “What I remember about this place, we all grew up in different neighborhoods and some of those were kind of segregated… But this was the place where everyone interacted, everyone comes together.”
Most of the cash infusion will pay for design and engineering work around the renovation of a long-vacant building that once served as an outpost of the now-defunct Fairmount Park Guard, which overlooks Pattison Lagoon near the park’s northeast entrance.
Per the master plan, the brick structure dating back to the early 20th century will be renovated into offices for the nonprofit Friends of FDR Park, several city parks staffers, and a vendors’ association that aims to formalize popular but ad-hoc food markets that have operated in the park for decades.
The redesigned guard building will also include space for equipment rentals and public bathrooms — an amenity many park users have long wanted to see. The city’s grant application also describes longer-term plans to renovate former stables and a courtyard area into a “4,000-square-foot cafe and 6,700 square-foot event space.”
The $4.5 million cash infusion comes from three sources. The lion’s share — $3 million — comes as a grant through the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. The Kenney administration matched that grant with $1 million from the city’s capital budget. The final $500,000 comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy. That money will fund the proposed three-acre “destination playscape,” called the Children’s Play Area.
“This children’s play area envisioned in the master plan is no ordinary playground,” said Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “Like Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park, this FDR playscape will be a source of pride for residents, a go-to destination for tourists and a fun, free accessible play space for families.“
A pandemic respite and green space for the future
Designed by the famed Olmsted Brothers firm, the sprawling tract near the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers was originally known as League Island Park but was extensively landscaped ahead of the city’s ill-fated 1926 Sesquicentennial Exhibition. A golf course was added later, reportedly at the urging of officers at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
But the massive park fell victim to years of underfunding. Former rec and swimming areas were neglected, trails became overgrown, and the links were abandoned in 2019. The park lacks a brick-and-mortar public bathroom and formal soccer fields, despite being home to a soccer league that is popular with South Philly’s Latin American communities.
Design firm WRT drafted the ambitious master plan in 2017, which called for a radical reimagining and reinvestment in the park –– but with a steep price tag owing in part to chronic flooding and other stormwater management issues that plague the former marshland. A parallel project that aims to restore about 45 acres of largely inaccessible wetlands, funded with dollars from the nearby Philadelphia International Airport, is slated to commence later this year,
But the city is still searching for funds for many elements of the master plan, which the city refers to as a multi-decade vision for FDR.
In the meantime, the park has served as a testing ground for a new model for managing the city’s large public spaces. A full-time “executive director” and assistants were hired last year to directly oversee management and maintenance of FDR, the first dedicated positions in the city’s extensive park system. The permanent staff has aided with sporadic improvement projects –– repaving a loop drive or converting the former golf course into a trail network informally known as “the Meadows,” for example –– and in the recruitment of hundreds of new volunteers.
Nearby resident Lauren Umlauf said the pandemic brought her family to the park more than ever before. Eventually, she signed up as a park volunteer herself.
“I live in South Philly with two kids. With the pandemic, we just really needed to be under trees, for our mental health,” she said. “The Meadows opening created a completely unique landscape… For me to be able to bike or drive a few minutes to get to that much open space is transformative.”
She praised the Welcome Center concept, noting the scale of the park and lack of public information was sometimes daunting for first-time visitors.
“It’s hundreds of acres. This would give people an overview of what’s available when they come to the park,” she said. “Also, bathrooms.”
Officials said they hoped to have design work completed by the end of the year, but do not yet have a projected cost or groundbreaking date for the Welcome Center or play areas.
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