As it did during its previous meeting, the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commission devoted the bulk of this Wednesday’s meeting to a project that triggers a review to make sure it complies with the city’s Open Lands Protection Ordinance. The meeting was held at Mander Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion, not far from the site of the proposed project, which includes an adaptive reuse of a former water reservoir in the East Park of Fairmount Park.
The project, the East Park Leadership and Conservation Center, a collaboration of the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound Philadelphia, encompasses a 37-acre man-made lake that was formally part of the city’s water supply system. The site is currently under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Water Department, but a four-acre strip of land that belongs to the Park and Recreation Department is proposed to be transferred for use as parking and access to the Center as well as for a small portion of a a two-story building’s footprint.
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 within 120 days after the Commission received a completed Alternative Analysis, as required by the Ordinance.
Commissioner Goldenberg then recused herself from the rest of the meeting because, she said, she had been involved in co-founding the local Outward Bound chapter two decades ago and wanted to “avoid any potential claim of bias.” Commissioner Leslie Anne Miller also recused herself since she had been engaged in very early on discussions about the project, she said. Commissioner Debra Wolf Goldstein conducted the rest of the meeting, which consisted of presentations from the two nonprofits and their consultants, followed by Commissioners’ questions and comments from the public.
Janet Starwood, director of urban conservation at Audubon Pennsylvania, began. She noted that the primary goal of the project is to preserve a historic resource — the former reservoir — that’s become a rich environment for some 200 species of migratory birds, as well as foxes, raccoons, frogs, butterflies, and naturally occurring vegetation. In addition to the lake, the Center will include the aforementioned 17,000-square-foot building. In return for the small transfer of parkland involved, she said the Center would open up almost 50 acres of land that has been inaccessible to the public.
Other speakers, including Keith Russell, Audubon Pennsylvania’s science and outreach coordinator; Jon Morrison from CVM Engineers; Katie Newsom Pastuszek, executive director of Outward Bound Philadelphia; and Phil Wallis, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania, also provided details on the proposed project.
Commissioners asked for more information on parking, lighting, gateway access to the site, and fencing. In attempting to address the questions, Starwood emphasized that the plan was still in its early stages, with no formal design commissioned. Lighting and fencing, she said, would need to ensure safety and security while at the same time minimizing impact on the natural habitat. Parking, she said, would likely be offered in concert with nearby Smith Memorial Playground.
The portion of 33rd Street connecting the site to the rest of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood would be cleaned up and transformed into trail landscape.
During the public commentary, a dozen or so speakers — evenly split between organizational spokespeople and area residents — offered overwhelming support for the project. But several organizations, notably Friends of the Wissahickon (which submitted a letter) and Philadelphia Parks Alliance, which spoke at the meeting, conditioned that support on issues of public access, aesthetics, and viewpoints being better addressed.
“If the general public has access to this project it will clearly be an incredible asset to Philadelphia and its citizens. However the Parks Alliance is concerned that the current proposals limit use to the site to a restricted group and are noncommittal about the frequency of times and days it will be completely accessible to the public without charge,” says Lauren Bornfriend, Executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance.
Neighbors , too, hammered home the need for stronger commitments and more specifics from Audubon and Outward Bound concerning access, opening hours, programming, neighborhood engagement and the like. Time and again, they voiced their great love for the park — many of them recalled playing around the reservoir sites as kids.
“We’re very excited that nature has found its way to give us back access,” said Tonneta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corp. But, she added, neighbors wanted to continue to be at the table during further discussions.