Germantown residents appeal Wissahickon playground decision

 (Aaron Moselle/WHYY, file)

(Aaron Moselle/WHYY, file)

A Philadelphia judge has ruled against a group of Germantown residents who sued city officials with hopes of saving a historic playground. An appeal is in the works.

Wissahickon Playground, a roughly one-acre plot near Pulaski Avenue and Penn Street, was dismantled to make way for a new public housing development that’s now roughly a month away from completion. That was done illegally, according to the complaint, which sought a preliminary injunction that, if granted, would have halted construction of the $22 million project.

Following a brief trial last month, Common Pleas Court Judge George Overton wrote that residents waited too long to file suit against the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development.

“The delay by the Petitioners, given the abundance of notice provided, amounts to inexcusable delay,” said Overton in his opinion.

The decision is a relief for PHA, which has a Dec. 15 ribbon cutting ceremony planned at the site.

“I’m thrilled,” said president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah. “We had been on the record, we have been engaged in public dialogue about the site and what was going to happen.”

Last September, PHA demolished Queen Lane Apartments, a 16-story high-rise with a checkered history. The tower will be replaced with a 55-unit development.

The move has considerable community support.

At a hearing in late May, PHA offered to help birth a pair of recreation spaces near the former home of Wissahickon Playground.

A “state of the art” basketball court is proposed for a private lot on Newhall Street. A children’s playground, or “tot lot,” is proposed for another private lot at the corner of Penn and Morris Streets.

Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass said the owner of “tot lot” space has verbally agreed to donate the vacant land to the city. The city is working with a church to acquire the space for a basketball court.

Both spaces, about a quarter-acre combined, would be completed over the next year with the help of $500,000 from PHA’s operating and capital budgets. PHA’s board has already approved the expenditure.

“This is a short-term fix, but there’s going to be a longer term strategy,” said Bass. “We need to figure out what all of our options are.”

Longtime resident and activist Greg Paulmier, the case’s lead plaintiff, said the two spaces aren’t sufficient and plans to appeal Overton’s decision.

Paulmier agreed that it’s too late to halt construction at Queen Lane, but he said the community still deserves a playground on par with the one that was torn down.

“In good conscience, we cannot allow this unhealthy behavior on the part of our city to usurp the law and put our children and family and community at risk,” said Paulmier.

Bass called the appeal “very misplaced.”

“By the time he appeals, families will hopefully be celebrating their first holiday season,” she said.

The suit, filed in March, maintains that the city, PHA and PAID violated the state’s Public Trust Doctrine and constitution.

According to the complaint, the city wrongly deeded the property to the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development in 2011 and that PAID then wrongly deeded it to PHA the day afterwards.

It argues that both transfers required Orphans’ Court approval given that part of the site was open space dedicated for parkland.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Paulmier. “I’m not a guy that gives up.”

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