FDR Park gets $4.5M funding boost for new Welcome Center and ‘destination’ playground

FDR Park is one of Philadelphia’s largest parks and has seen its popularity grow as the pandemic draws people to green spaces.

An's artist's rendering of a three-acre playground planned for FDR Park. (City of Philadelphia)

An's artist's rendering of a three-acre playground planned for FDR Park. (City of Philadelphia)

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.

An’s artist’s rendering of a Welcome Center planned for FDR Park. (City of Philadelphia)

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.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Michelle Davidson plays with her dog, Luna, at FDR Park
Michelle Davidson of South Philadelphia spends some time with her dog, Luna, at FDR Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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 5,500-square foot guardhouse at the entrance to FDR Park
The 5,500-square foot guardhouse at the entrance to FDR Park will be restored and converted into a welcome center with restrooms, information, and equipment rentals. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell speaks at a press conference
Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell announces a $4.5 million investment in improving FDR Park in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“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.“

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

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.

Golfers work on their swings at the abandoned FDR Park golf course
Golfers work on their swings at the abandoned FDR Park golf course. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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.

Wu Tan plays with his daughters on a swing set at FDR Park
Wu Tan plays with his daughters, Tiffany, 1, and Emily, 8, on the swing set at FDR Park near their home in South Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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.

Volunteers stand in a line at FDR Park
FDR Park volunteers have been busy cleaning and maintaining the park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“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.

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal