Just before the first snowfall of the season, volunteers gathered in East Mount Airy to clean six acres of former farm land that, after years of neighbor-developer conflict, the city has secured as parkland.
The six acres, known as the Wissahickon East Project (WEP), are remnants of Cresheim Farm, a 50-acre farm established in the early 1700s. For more than 15 years, neighbors have cleaned and protected the land to the best of their ability. Twice they went up against developers who wanted to build as many as 25 homes on the land, and twice they succeeded. This fall, the city officially took ownership of the land and committed to preserving it as park space.
The plot is roughly bounded by Cresheim Valley Road, Anderson Street, Crest Park Road and SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East regional rail line. Today the land is densely wooded and bisected by Cresheim Creek. It is the last remaining section of East Mount Airy where the creek runs freely through a wooded setting, rather than through tunnels and along old railroad beds.
In 2004 when the second developer sought to build on the land, the neighbors officially joined as WEP. With the support of Friends of the Wissahickon and the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, WEP convinced a developer who wanted to build more than two dozen homes on the land to place the land in a conservation easement instead.
While that was a major accomplishment, WEP was unsure of what to do next, explained WEP managing advisor Antje Mattheus. Eventually the city agreed to convert the land into parkland, which Mattheus said will help Philadelphia meet its goal of providing park and recreation amenities within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents by 2015. But even after the city agreed, it had to go through many steps, such as ensuring there were no mortgages or back taxes on the property.
That process took “hundreds, if not thousands, of city hours to negotiate with the developer,” Mattheus said. “There were just so many different hurdles to be cleared.”
Finally in October, the six acres were officially secured under Parks and Recreation.
The trail ahead
Saturday’s cleanup tackled clearing the beginning of a trail near the intersection of Woodbrook Lane and Anderson Street, where the new parkland is most easily accessible. The plan is to create a looping trail that might measure about one-quarter of a mile. Completing the trail will take time, Mattheus cautioned. One major issue will be figuring out how to get the trail across the creek. That process will be made more difficult by the fact that floods have washed out much of the creek bed.
There is a chance the new loop will be able to connect with a future portion of the Cresheim Trail, but at the moment there are no concrete plans for that.
Instead, WEP will focus on immediate fixes – like removing actual concrete that has been dumped or washed downstream. On Saturday, volunteers removed chunks of concrete and buried others. They cleared the beginning of the path, removed vines, raked leaves, cleared the creek bed of debris and moved limbs and dead trees that a chainsaw crew had taken down earlier.
Throughout the winter volunteers will continue to cut vines off trees, remove other invasive species, plant native species and, if the weather holds, build a fence to prevent dumping. In the short and long term, WEP will work with the Philadelphia Water Department, to build create a riparian buffer around Cresheim Creek and enhance the overall health of the stream.