Neighbors look to save historic Wissahickon Playground from destruction

 An image of the Wissahickon Playground in 2012. (NewsWorks file)

An image of the Wissahickon Playground in 2012. (NewsWorks file)

A group of nearby neighbors has filed a civil complaint against the Philadelphia Housing Authority with hopes of saving an historic playground in West Germantown.

Filed in Orphans’ Court on Tuesday, the suit seeks a preliminary injunction to halt the ongoing redevelopment of the plot where the Wissahickon Playground once stood on the corner of Pulaski Avenue and Penn Street.

In September, PHA demolished Queen Lane Apartments, a 16-story high-rise, to make way for a brand new 55-unit low-density development.

Wisshickon Playground, deeded to the city in 1935, was dismantled in the years leading up to the implosion as neighbors, PHA officials and others worked to preserve a Colonial-era burial ground on the site.

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The complaint (PDF) claims PHA, the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development violated the state’s Public Trust Doctrine and constitution as a result.

“They can’t unilaterally get rid of open space that’s dedicated for parkland use,” said Samuel Stretton, who’s prosecuting the Common Pleas Court case. “They’re blinded by money.”

The suit states that the city wrongly deeded the property to the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development in 2011 and that PAID then wrongly deeded it to the Philadelphia Housing Authority for development the day afterwards.

Both transfers, according to the suit, required Orphans’ Court approval given that a sale was “prohibited by the Public Trust Doctrine.”

Stretton said he made a similar argument in 2008 when he successfully saved a section of Burholme Park leased by the city from being annexed by the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia.

The center dropped its plans after a Commonwealth Court judge blocked it from building the expansion.

Lifelong resident Greg Paulmier, the suit’s lead plaintiff, said neighbors are hoping for a similar outcome in this case.

“It’s hard to have a healthy community without having a place to play,” said Paulmier. “It doesn’t work.”

PHA declined comment, saying it has not been served.

PHA did, however, respond to a letter sent from Stretton last year about the matter.

It reads:

“PHA and the City of Philadelphia have complied with all laws and procedures in connection with terminating the restriction of use of the Property as a playground and other historical restrictions,”

Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said the city “doesn’t comment on pending suits.”

Stretton said the case’s first court date could come sometime this month.

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