Kroc Center hums with hope and promise

For a long time, Roberts Avenue looked out on a vast, grimy no man’s land that none of the surrounding Philadelphia neighborhoods wanted to claim.


Alan Greenberger, the city’s deputy mayor for planning, calls the hulking expanse of empty concrete “the hole in the doughnut.”


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Until now. These days, the gap where the neighborhoods of Germantown, East Falls, Nicetown, Tioga and Allegheny West all meet has become a focal point of hope.


The reason, a $120 million community and fitness center run by the Salvation Army. Dedicated in October and opened for use on Nov. 1, the Kroc Center has changed the feel of the neighborhoods surrounding it, seemingly in a matter of weeks.


“It’s very welcome,” said Roberts Avenue resident Linda Graham. She said there’s “a buzz” on the street because of the new center. “It’s something that’s long been needed.”


The Kroc Center is named for McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and his wife, Joan, whose estate left $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army to build centers like this one around the land.


The estate gave $72 million to the local effort, while local fundraising kicked the current total up to $93.5 million, with $30 million still left to go. Among the local contributions, the city gave $2 million.


The center wants to keep going for a long time, to make sure Joan Kroc’s aim of improving life in low-income communities doesn’t peter out.  Hence the $44.5 million endowment.  That gives the center resources to think long-term, while keeping its services affordable on a day-to-day basis.


All of a sudden, the hole in the doughnut has become a magnet.  So much so that politicians argued over who could claim credit for it at the October ribbon cutting.


Stronger proof came at 5 a.m. on the cold November Monday when the Kroc Center opened. Local residents were lined up outside the doors, some having actually commuted into the doughnut hole for the first time.


The Salvation Army’s Maj. Timothy Lyle has been working on the project for six years. For him, seeing the place pulse with life was an incomparable thrill.


“When [we] opened today it was just so satisfying to see that line of people at the door,” he said on Nov. 1. “You can smell the coffee brewing – all of a sudden it’s live, it’s real.”


Nine-year old Terah Carter of Nicetown was also impressed.


“I would like to live here,” she said as she looked around.


Greened by the sun


And no wonder. Picture this: A curved glass interior atrium that looks out on a landscaped green, a cafe open to the community, a fireplace in the lounge area, a planned early childhood center for up to 80 pre-schoolers, a coming suite of fully wired multimedia classrooms for academic enrichment, an indoor double basketball court, a two story fitness center, indoor swim facilities to make your jaw drop and a professional grade synthetic turf soccer field overlooking the whole thing.


The building curls toward the sun so that two stories of glass can pour light and warmth into the high traffic areas. And on most days electric lights won’t be needed in the gym because the sun does all the work.


Architect Richard King, who worked for one of the designers, MGA Partners, said a big part of planing the building was about visualizing its relationship with everything around it – even those empty industrial buildings that look like a mountain range in the background.


“The whole idea of the building is the outside and how to make the building always connected to the outside,” he said. “How can we make a place that will be all about that sense of oasis?”


For someone like Sylvia Youngblood, who home-schools her three children in Germantown, a family center of this caliber so close by is a dream come true.


“You’re looking at gym right here,” she said, as the family splashed it up in a heated indoor children’s swimming area that resembles a water park.


Finding site was a ‘godsend’


But not everything is dreamlike around the Kroc Center. In fact, that’s part of the point.


When it began searching the Eastern Seaboard for a site to plant a major Kroc Center, the Salvation Army wanted a perfect storm of community distress – a place where a facility like this would have a massive impact for years to come.


The combination of local need, public transportation and site potential was a lot to ask, and in all the cities in all the states in all the East, the Army couldn’t find a match for its aspirations.


Until, literally at the 11th hour before the application window closed, this 12.5-acre site on SEPTA bus routes in an all but forgotten part of the city opened up.


“It really was a Godsend,” Lyle recalled.


Equally fortuitous is the center’s relationship with legendary Philadelphia swim coach Jim Ellis.


Ellis began in the 1970’s as the first coach for Philadelphia Recreation Department swim teams.


His success over the decades teaching swimming and battling the stereotype that ‘black kids don’t swim’ resulted in more national-level college athletes than any other after school program in the city (by his count) and a movie called Pride, starring no less than Terrence Howard.


Recently Ellis sat at the edge of the Kroc’s new pool – a truly giant affair – as one of his first students, 42-year old Tracy Freeland, glided low and fast through the water.


“Society says that African Americans can’t swim,” Ellis said of his drive to coach. “I wanted to dispel that myth. And the only way to dispel that myth was to have people swim at the highest level.


Tracy Freeland and his older brother, Trevor, did that, earning college scholarshps.  Now Tracy’s 10-year old daughter already looks good enough to follow in their wakes.


A path to possibilities


For Ellis, the great new pool at the Kroc is a path to new possibilities for kids from the nearby neighborhoods.


“We can grow and go international now,” Ellis said of his goals for the new youth travel team that he hopes to build at the Kroc.


That sense of a wide open future is like a happy background hum at the Kroc.


You can hear it in the chatter of play in the shining, wide open courts where nearby Wissahickon Charter School will play five homes games this school year. Its old court has several padded pillars growing out of the floor.


And you can glimpse that future on smaller scales – like the pint-sized frame of six-year old Taylor Warren. She simply couldn’t get enough of the new soccer field.


“She’s been begging for soccer,” said Taylor’s mom, Stacy Grant, who lives just four blocks away. “I was like, ‘I don’t have anywhere to bring you for soccer.’  Low and behold it was in my backyard.”


The Kroc Center is located at 4200 Wissahickon Avenue. Scholarships are available for low income members. Call 215-717-1200 for information. 

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