Park & Recreation Commission hears Temple Boathouse testimony

The Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commission hosted a packed house Wednesday evening at Lloyd Hall, turning over its bimonthly meeting to the hearing of testimony regarding a proposed boathouse to be built by Temple University.

The project ( is controversial because it involves building on Fairmount Park land near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge on the Schuylkill River, about a mile north of Boathouse Row.

It has triggered the first test of the city’s Open Lands Protection Ordinance, which opponents claim Temple is violating because it is not offering any substitute land in return. (Instead, it proposes a contribution of $1.5 million toward renovating the 1916 East Park Canoe House, which is near the building site, and says it will spend an equal sum for landscape and retaining wall improvements.)

Although Temple crew once occupied the Canoe House, it hasn’t enjoyed a permanent home since 2008, when the building was condemned. Since then, the team has been housed in a series of under-equipped and crowded makeshift tents nearby.

“It’s important for this facility to be built because we’ve doubled in size since I’ve been here, and we haven’t had a permanent facility in years,” Temple senior Joanna Sutor told PlanPhilly before the meeting. “Our temporary facilities can’t house everyone,” she added. Noting that even though she’d no longer be at the school by the time the project was finished, she said, “I’m here to make sure that future rowers have the best experience possible.”

Sutor would sound the same themes later in her brief testimony, as would the other 15 or so rowers who approached the microphone. All told, more than 50 athletes showed up last night — boys standing in the back with their arms crossed, girls sitting on the sidelines  — and they loudly cheered and applauded every bit of positive testimony.

Among the 35 speakers who entered testimony, about a dozen opponents of the project, quieter but equally respectful, hammered their own repeat notes. They loved Temple, they loved boating, they loved the idea of a new boathouse. But, said representatives from the Philadelphia Parks Alliance and several Friends groups, they were disappointed that the University had not satisfactorily found alternative land to buy on the park system’s behalf, and that it had not talked with any parks or community groups.

“A lot of people worked very hard to make sure the Ordinance included the key mandate that the developer must provide for substitute land,” Lauren Bornfriend, executive director of the Alliance, told PlanPhilly before the meeting. “We believe that there’s land out there, and we’d be happy to talk with Temple about it.”

Before testimony began, Commission Chair Nancy Goldenberg provided a summation of the Ordinance, and reminded the audience that the Commission would not be deliberating or making any decisions that evening. They would, she said, submit a judgment to the Mayor and Council President by March 9, which represents 120 days after it received the completed Alternative Analysis from Temple, as required by the Ordinance.

Officials from Temple — Ken Lawrence, senior vice president of government, community, and public affairs and Margaret Carney, university architect — next briefed Commissioners and the audience on the proposed project. The two-story, 23,000-square-foot building is estimated to cost between $8 million and $12 million, they said.

A few Commissioners had questions. Commissioner Sarah Clark Stuart asked for clarification as to why the land has been appraised as being of “nominal value,” and Carney delineated the reasons, including its situation in a flood plain, its limited range of uses, and its trapezoidal shape. Clark Stuart also asked why Temple hadn’t considered purchasing land and donating it to the park system, to which Lawrence replied that the university thought helping the city get the historic canoe house back online might be a better public service. (He also suggested that Temple would be willing to investigate other scenarios.)

Commissioner Leslie Anne Miller asked for reiteration that Temple was prepared to assume the cost of repairing a deteriorating retaining wall, and Commissioner Debra Wolf Goldstein, who was instrumental in crafting the Ordinance’s language, wanted assurance that the $1.5 million that the university was prepared to spend on repairing the wall and improving the landscape was in addition to the $1.5 million it would contribute toward the canoe house renovation.

Wolf Goldstein also asked for more details on why Temple had ruled out retrofitting the canoe house for itself. Carney said the building could be restored to serve the public but was too small to ever be useful to Temple’s growing rowing population.  

Before the floor was opened to audience members, Al Spivey, chief of staff for Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., addressed the Commission, emphasizing that the Councilman was an “adamant supporter” of the project. “This is a world class opportunity,” Spivey said. “We have to make this work.”

His urging was echoed again and again by the rowers who spoke. One crew member drew cheers, and some jeers, when she acknowledged that the proposal might not be in keeping with the Ordinance and then paraphrased the axiom that small minds adhere to the letter of the law, while great minds think bigger.

Ah youth.

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