How FDR Park’s $200 million makeover is future-proofing ‘the lakes’

A $200 million, 10-year vision reimagines the only Olmsted Brothers-designed park in Philadelphia and prepares it for a hotter and wetter tomorrow.

FDR Master Plan: The Wetlands (Provided)

FDR Master Plan: The Wetlands (Provided)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

An ambitious 10-year plan to completely revamp the busy but underfunded FDR Park is a very green new deal for South Philadelphia. It includes a 36-foot-tall hill overlooking the city, 45 acres of wetland, plenty of fields and fancy recreational areas, and multiple access points to lakes and wildlife.

But one of the plan’s priorities is to tackle a very basic necessity of the park — keeping it dry.

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Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said the park floods constantly, mainly because it was built over marshland.

“The park is, in many ways, meant to be under water — it had been underwater for many years,” she said. “But we can do a better job of controlling where the water ebbs and flows in the park, and controlling the amenities and where they’re located in relation to water in the park.”

FDR Park is the only one in Philadelphia designed by the Olmsted Brothers — the sons of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who envisioned multiple parks in the country, including Central Park in New York City. It was made possible in 1914 by reusing soil displaced during construction of the Broad Street Subway to fill the wetland.

But because the 350-acre FDR Park is in a low-lying area, water naturally finds its way. It doesn’t help that the park’s tide gate, which helps drain the water, hasn’t been working for years. Or that the area receives what the park-renovation plan calls a “massive incursion of untreated stormwater from I-95, Broad Street, and areas north of Pattison Avenue.”

At a public meeting that was part of the one-year process the Fairmount Park Conservancy coordinated to design a vision for the park’s future, residents said that after heavy rains, the playground, the baseball fields, the gold course, and 20 other parts of the park are covered by water.

“The park experiences significant flooding from stormwater events, but also from tidal events and through groundwater,” said Allison Schapker, the park’s master plan project manager with Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Water has slowly corroded and deteriorated trails and roadways, and prevents residents from using the park, also known by locals as “the lakes.”

“The biggest thing that everybody complains about is potholes in the road,” said park advocate Barbara  A. Capozzi, leader of Friends of FDR since 2004. “The water comes up from underground, it eats away the roads, and makes it very difficult [to ride].”

Heavy rains and sea-level rise, predicted for the future will only make matters worse.

To solve the flooding problems and add climate-change mitigation features to South Philadelphia, the first phase of FDR Park’s master plan is to make structural changes that will allow the water to get into the park, flow naturally, and drain out. Philadelphia International Airport will restore 45 acres of wetland by excavating an area at the southwestern side of the park that is now closed to the public. That soil will later be used to raise areas at the edge of the park that need to stay dry, such as restaurants, play areas and fields, and to create a hill.

Raymond Scheinfeld, the airport’s environmental manager, said both soil and groundwater were tested and came out clean. The wetland will enhance existing habitats, he said, and provide a buffer to control flooding coming from the Delaware River. The airport will pay for this project, to be able to develop wetland adjacent to it in the future.

The park also will work as an important cooling center in what is projected to be a hotter future, in an area with little tree canopy and access to green areas.

Philly’s Central Park

FDR Master Plan: The Boathouse (Provided)

The challenges at FDR Park don’t stop with flooding.

Water, sewer and electric lines there are almost 100 years old. Historic buildings like the Guardhouse and Bath Houses have been closed to the public because of lack of maintenance. The park is divided in two, and access is closed off by a fence. Invasive species run wild, making access to the lakes hard. And in its 350 acres, the park has only one playground, and one bathroom that opens randomly. There is no restaurant or cafe to get a bite to eat if food trucks or other vendors are not around.

A parking concession that operates during Eagles games or other major events creates competing needs. Capozzi, of the Friends of FDR group, said that the concession is a necessary evil because it generates funds for the park, but that fans arrive six hours before games and stay until sunrise.

FDR Park is heavily used by a diverse number of immigrants and refugees. Carolina Torres, who represents the Latino community in the planning process, said there are not enough soccer fields.

“There is currently a league of over 15 soccer teams that uses the field through the summer and fall,” Torres said in an email. “For other communities, the issues vary from illegal street vending (street meat at the South East Asian community market) to trash pick-up generally after tailgating for Philly events (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers).”

Parks and Recreation’s Ott Lovell said even though the park is well used and loved, it’s not reaching its full potential.

“It could be used by a far greater number of people than we think are currently using it,” she said. “And I really think that it could become a destination park, a regional destination.”

Capozzi said her goal is for FDR to look like Central Park. And, judging from the designs coming out of the master plan, she might get something similar.

After engaging with about 3,000 residents, the planning and design firm WRT organized the park into two zones. What is being called an “ecological core” in the center will include the lakes with new boardwalks, picnic areas, and access points for fishing and paddling; the wetland; an expanded Shedbrook Creek with kayak and canoe rentals; and the hill. The park will have pedestrian and bike-exclusive entrances, and at the edges the plan is to include a welcome center, food concessions, a three-acre playground, a great lawn, renovated athletic fields including basketball courts for the first time, and a 5K trail for walkers, runners and cyclists.

Parking will increase from 900 spaces to 1,700. Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Schapker said the plan creates designated spaces for parking to occur without interfering with other uses of the park.

Torres said the Latino community she represents is very excited about the plan, especially about the new fields, family areas, bathrooms, and dedicated staff.

“It’s just been fabulous,” Capozzi said of the planning process. “They have been very, very mindful of the uniqueness of FDR Park and all the people that live here.”

The master plan was been funded so far by Friends of FDR Park, City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office, the William Penn Foundation, Fairmount Park Conservancy, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. Funds have been allocated to start repaving the park road and repairing the roof of the Guardhouse, and for a dedicated park manager and the wetland. The goal of this coalition is to raise funds from local, state and federal agencies, and from corporate and private investors.

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