Manayunk community gets sneak peek of soon-to-open Venice Island arts center

On Wednesday night, Manayunk residents got a sneak preview at a new performing arts center hailed by city officials as being state-of-the-art.


The Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center is the centerpiece of recent enhancements made to Venice Island by a variety of government agencies in the last few years. The building itself features a 250-seat theater with modern sound, lighting and stage design. In addition, there are several spaces inside that will serve as backstage areas and classrooms.

Cost estimates for the theater range between $8 and $10 million.

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Adjacent to the theater is a children’s spray garden, a landscaped seating area, a volleyball court and a basketball court that doubles as a natural amphitheater. Ample public parking is also available alongside the courts and the theater.

The new features were part of a $46 million investment by the city and the Philadelphia Water Department at the site to curb stormwater runoff.

As part of that investment, a 4-million gallon water storage tank was built below surface level on the island in order to prevent runoff into the Schuylkill River, which forms the island’s western boundary. A multi-story pump house for the tank is located on the southern end of Venice Island.

Activities at the performing arts center are slated to begin this fall, and city officials expect full implementation of recreational programming by the spring.

“The idea is [that] this place will be open 365 days a year,” said Diane Mataraza, a consultant on the project.

Uses and programming plans

While water management was a catalyst for the project, project officials emphasized that serving the needs of the community was an important component of the plan for Venice Island.

On Wednesday night, Mataraza explained to a crowd of about 50 that the performing arts center will have three tiers of usage as part of its operating model.

In the first tier are participants from the from the city’s approximately 140 recreation centers; the second tier provides use of the facility for nonprofit organizations, such as civic association meetings; the last tier consists of for-profit events, which Mataraza said are “critical” to the business model of the facility.

Within these guidelines, project officials — including a 10-member advisory board — were interested in gaining public comment for what they would like to see at the site.

She announced that recent survey of about 450 residents indicated that a farmers market and themed-festivals were foremost in the mind of the community; various entertainment options rounded out the survey.

In a guided conversation led by Mataraza, the findings of the survey were reinforced by those present, with specific suggestions about public amenities such as bathrooms, trash receptacles and provisions for dog owners and bicycle riders.

While community outreach was a commonly-voiced theme, some residents pointed out that all interests needed to be served.

Angel Chiango, a Manayunk resident since 1981, wanted to see diverse programming at the theater that would attract visitors of all ages, with an orientation to permanent residents of the neighborhood and not “the rowdier, beer-drinking crowd.”

A final direction

As public interest in the site begins to build, city officials are noting that the theater and the grounds are also attracting attention from taggers and skateboarders. On Wednesday, graffiti was evident on the theater’s exterior, as was minor damage to exterior concrete surfaces and drainage systems resulting from skateboarding.

Parks and Rec officials said that they are investigating enhanced security at the site — additional staffing and surveillance cameras — but hope the start of the school year will curb vandalism prior to the facility’s ribbon-cutting on Oct. 7.

It’s just one of many kinks to be ironed out before full-fledged operations begin in the spring, but for community members who have participated in ongoing conversations about the project’s design, it represents the conclusion of nearly 10 years of work and a vast improvement over a tiny performing arts center that once resided on Venice island.

Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, acknowledged that challenges still exist in ensuring that the facility is asset to the community, but was pleased with the completed space.

“In the early planning phases, there were a lot of questions about what direction we were going to go, but we finally came up with a plan, Parks and Recreation got inspired, the water department got inspired, and now we’ve ended up with this,” he said. “And it’s great.”

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