FDR park renovation officially begins with Welcome Center groundbreaking

One official called the project’s planned public restrooms “the culmination of a dream.”

City officials ceremoniously broke ground on rehabilitation of a building at FDR Park in South Philadelphi, on May 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

City officials ceremoniously broke ground on rehabilitation of a building at FDR Park in South Philadelphi, on May 18, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The massive redo of a popular park in South Philadelphia has officially begun.

City officials ceremonially broke ground on the park’s new Welcome Center Wednesday — a restoration and transformation of the park’s historic guardhouse and stables, and the first construction to begin in the $250 million makeover of the park.

“It’s happening,” said Justin DiBerardinis, FDR Park director with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, at a media event Wednesday. “We are building that FDR Park that we’ve been dreaming of for the last few years.”

When finished, the new welcome center will feature a 4,000-square-foot cafe and 6,700-square-foot multi-purpose event space with a view of a restored lagoon. It will also have a staffed information center for equipment rentals and park permit sign-ups, an open air courtyard with space for three vendors, and 14 public restrooms.

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Once restored, the building will become the park’s welcome center, with bathrooms, a courtyard cafe, an event space, and bike rentals. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“As somebody who’s been involved in Philadelphia’s park system for 16 years, this is the culmination of a dream, people,” said Maura McCarthy, director of the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy, which is spearheading the project. “Public bathrooms in a park.”

FDR Park was built on South Philly’s tidal wetlands, and parts of it flood frequently — an issue climate change only promises to make worse. The grand plan to renovate the park takes this into account, with a repair of the park’s dysfunctional tide gate, restoration of dozens of acres of tidal wetlands by the Philadelphia International Airport as part of an offset for an expansion project, and elevation of other areas of the park using soil dredged to recreate the wetlands.

Maura McCarthy, Executive Director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, explained the efforts to restore existing parts of the former guardhouse, like the windows. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The park redo will also create a “great lawn” for celebrations and picnics, dozens of multi-purpose and single-use athletic fields and courts, and a formal event space. It’s not without its opponents, who would prefer a natural area on the park’s western side to be left alone.

The project could take a decade to finish.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents parts of South Philly, said he supports the park facelift because it gives young people “a place to come enjoy themselves.”

“We want them to put down guns. We want them to not sell drugs,” he said. “We have to give them high-quality parks and recreation facilities.”

During the groundbreaking ceremony of the FDR Park Welcome Center on May 18, 2022, City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson recalled riding his Huffy bicycle to the park as a child. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The welcome center renovation is the first of three steps the Conservancy says will be completed this year. Construction of the Pattison Playground is scheduled to start this summer, and design will begin on the gateway project, which officials say will be the “front porch” of FDR Park.

“Together, all of these things will create a new and improved experience that we hope will properly welcome people into a vibrant park and the vibrant communities who inhabit it,” McCarthy said.

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According to the Conservancy, the old guard house and stables previously housed police horses and dogs that were part of the park guard. The renovation will include repair to the building’s historic brickwork and “reshading” — with 24 new trees, 41 new shrubs, and upwards of 17,000 new plants. It’ll cost around $10 million, funded with city and state money, as well as by the historic preservation organization The 1772 Foundation. 

The FDR Park Welcome Center will have a courtyard cafe. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“[The building] has been a center for operations here at FDR Park that has not been open and accessible to the community,” said Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “We’re thrilled that with this massive investment that we’re making in this extraordinary project, that we will be able to open this as a community resource.”

The new welcome center is expected to open in fall 2023.

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