By JoAnn Greco
That fifty or so people even turned out for the first public meeting of the Commission of Parks & Recreation last night is noteworthy. The event wasn’t heavily publicized — neither Fairmount Park nor the Recreation Department listed it on its web site — and it was held in the hard-to-find, albeit symbolic, chill of the Horticultural Center in Fairmount Park.
As park enthusiasts gathered under the conservatory’s spreading palms and fading poinsettias, chair Nancy Goldenberg briskly began the proceedings by summing up the powers of the new 15-member Commission as “advisory,” unveiling three committees — Land Use and Acquisition; Branding, Marketing and Communications; and Revenue Enhancement — and promising that the Commission would “listen intently to the citizens of Philadelphia.”
That last bit was a direct reference to the previous Fairmount Park Commission, heavily criticized for keeping itself removed from both the Mayor’s office and from city residents. The new Commission comes out of last year’s amendment to the City Charter, which transferred powers and duties to a new Department of Parks and Recreation that merges operations of Fairmount Park and the city’s Recreation Department. “We aim to develop written standards and policies that are enforceable and that help to fulfill the department’s strategic objectives,” Goldenberg said.
Goldenberg then called on the thirteen commissioners present (absent were ex-officios Alan Greenberger, the executive director of the City Planning Commission, and Bernard Brunwasser, commissioner, Philadelphia Water Department). Ranging from a banking official to a land use attorney to a bicycling advocate, the nine appointed members relayed their experiences working for the park or recreation systems, serving as commissioners, or participating in friends’ groups. (The other ex-officio members include the City Council President, and the commissioners of the Streets, Public Property, and Parks and Recreation departments.)
City Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown and Darrell Clarke — introduced as two “who have worked tirelessly to make sure the Parks & Recreation merger happened,” by Goldenberg — gave brief rah-rah comments next. After thanking the 200 citizens who eventually applied for a place on the commission, Reynolds Brown referenced Harriet Beecher Stowe, speaking of “tight places” and “never giving up”. Clarke evoked the name-recognition of the much-smaller Central Park, saying that Philadelphia needs “to market [Fairmount] Park in a way that is commensurate with [its] treasures,” a sentiment later echoed by Carol Rice, who will chair the Communications Committee and who promised to “make this a model parks and recreation department. . . and to make sure everyone knows about it.”
Following on Clarke’s suggestion that the commission include some of the unchosen applicants in its work, Goldenberg revealed that a handful of these folks have already been awarded places on the commission’s three committees.
After brief remarks from other park players — representatives from the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, Philadelphia Parks Alliance, and Philadelphia Recreation Advisory Council — the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society offered a slide presentation (complete with a Flower Show plug).
Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis next provided an update on the merger process. He outlined a vision that includes five key areas of concentration towards becoming “the best parks and recreation department in the country”: leadership in youth programming, fine-tuning of recreation/cultural/historical assets, improved land management, expansion of urban green space, and the embedding of green practices throughout the department.
Tangibles we can all expect to see, he said, include 300,000 new trees planted in the next six years, an expanded network of trails, and the adaptation of urban agriculture. The “operational imperative,” he added, is that “this system needs to be safe, clean, and ready to be used.” That means, he said, that the “lights work, the bench is fixed, and the grass is properly maintained.” An organizational chart is being finalized and a preliminary budget will soon be presented to City Council, DiBerardinis announced. The merger is mandated to be concluded by July of this year.
The notion that “parks and recreation in this city are in jeopardy is what drives this commission,” DiBerardinis said after the meeting. “The Mayor has directly asked us to tackle land use issues first. This is our chance to get clarity, to look at what other cities are doing, to understand the questions. A set of clear standards and policies will answer those questions and I think we should have something done and in the Mayor’s hands by, at the latest, the end of this year.”
DiBerardinis will sit on the Land Use committee, which will be chaired by Debra Wolf Goldstein and will address issues concerning open space preservation and the leasing of parkland and recreational facilities.
One audience member, Linda Lauff, a Friend of Pennypack Park and a staffer at Philadelphia Park Alliance, said this is a prime concern for her neighbors. “In Pennypack, it can be hard to really know where the boundaries are, what’s parkland and what’s private,” she said. “So every time there’s development, people get worried: ‘oh no, is the city selling the land?’ Once that parkland is gone, it’s gone.”
As the crowd dispersed, Commissioner Alexander “Pete” Hoskins, formerly director of Fairmount Park, head of the Philadelphia Zoo, and board president of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, marveled at the turnout. “Citizen impact is at the heart of this new governance model,” he said. “The former Commission wasn’t geared to citizen involvement or citizen connection and that independence hurt the parks. These commissioners are looking forward to taking accountability,” he continued.
For Hoskins, who will chair the Revenue Enhancement committee, it’s personal. During the public portion of the meeting, as he discussed why he was interested in serving on the commission, he spoke of his “long history” with the park system and acknowledged that while he may have “been part of the problem,” he now wants to be “part of the new solution.”
Later that evening, he mused a bit further. “There’s a new standard,” he said. “Now we just have to be held to it.”
The Commission on Parks & Recreation will meet at 6pm on the third Wednesday of every other month (next meeting: March 17) at the Central Branch of the Free Library.