Parkside: Fairmount Park Conservancy collaborates on Centennial District Master Plan

By Christine Fisher and Kara Savidge
For PlanPhilly

The Fairmount Park Conservancy counts the Centennial District Master Plan among one of its featured projects. Set to be completed by 2026, the multi-organization plan aims to connect the cultural institutions and resources within the Centennial District, which extends from the west entrance of the Philadelphia Art Museum to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

Pat Dooner said he comes to Fairmount Park every day or two to run because he said he hates running in the city.

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The $300 million plan, which is funded by the Fairmount Park Conservancy with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation, will include $100 million in infrastructure improvements and $200 million in additional venues as stated in the Centennial District Master Plan on the conservancy’s website.

Some of the planned projects include removing and realigning roadways to create a single park drive, installing signs to direct park traffic to venues and establishing a new transit line which will connect East Park, the Parkway and Center City, making the park more accessible and easily navigated.

The conservancy, which works to develop and maintain the Fairmount Park system as a whole, is one of the main groups leading the project, but in crafting the master plan, it collaborated with various individuals and organizations throughout Philadelphia.

Currently the organization is in the middle of a strategic planning process, which Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell said she initiated when she arrived at the conservancy approximately six months ago.

The conservancy’s strategic plan will outline its project goals over the next year, and Ott Lovell said the Centennial District Plan is a major component. But beyond the conservancy’s work with the district, she said many groups and individuals have contributed to the inception, planning and execution of the vision for the area.

“The conservancy got involved more recently,” said Ott Lovell. “The Centennial District is comprised mostly of Fairmount Park land, we came on board as another partner to think about this and help move it forward.”

Ott Lovell said that while the conservancy is involved in laying out capital improvements as well as programming elements to execute its goals, individuals such as Pete Hoskins, former head of the Philadelphia Zoo, Alan Greenberger, now deputy mayor of planning and Nancy Kolb, who ran the Please Touch Museum until 2009, were all “leaders of the movement.”

Erica Adams and her family visited the Please Touch Museum in Memorial Hall. Adams said that she’s come there for parties and has been there approximately 10 times.

As far as the master vision for the plan, Ott Lovell credits Philadelphia-based architecture firm MGA Partners as the creators. Katie Broh, an associate with the firm, said she thought MGA brought a vision for the design of the entire Centennial District, a section of the park that hasn’t received much attention in previous decades.

“The plan was to find a way to really reinvigorate that part of the city, that part of the park, and also make it a district that really serves the venues that are located within it,” Broh said. “Tying them back into the neighborhoods as well and finding a way to really, more so than it currently does, feed into the neighborhood organizations in West Park and all of those neighborhood groups, to become a larger amenity for those neighborhoods.”

Broh said in an effort to support large venues in the area MGA hoped to better understand the infrastructure and relation patterns between them. Beyond that, the firm wanted to understand how people get to the district, navigate their way through it and whether there are even enough venues for the area to be a considered a viable destination.

To form a basis for comparison, Broh said that MGA created comparable studies of other major park systems and districts with similar sizes, scale and number of venues. These included the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and Central Park in New York.

“We used those examples to really look at how we could fit together a group of venues that we have within the park and augment it where we saw the different gaps, so that the district as a whole had continuity, consistency and was able to overall become a vibrant space,” Broh said.

Kathryn Ott Lovell displays a large Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Asset Locations Map in her office. The map includes the network of the city’s major and neighborhood parks known as the Fairmount Park System.

Along Parkside Avenue streetscape improvements and the construction of neighborhood parks and amenities are planned. These initiatives are among other phases to be executed over the next 20 years.

Some phases of the plan, including a 5K recreational loop, have already been completed.

“That is an exciting piece that we completed maybe a year ago,” Broh said. “The circuit goes all around the area of the Horticultural Center, Please Touch Museum, and has an initial section of roadway work that was completed in order to start to clarify and cleanup the intersections and circulations throughout the park.”

Another part of the plan that has already been executed is the Please Touch Museum’s relocation from 210 N. 21st St. to Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park — the only remaining major structure from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. During the exhibition many of the buildings in the neighborhood were built.

The move meant more than another destination in the district, but contributes to the commemoration of the Centennial Exhibition, which both Broh and Ott Lovell highlighted as a key facet and foundation of the plan.

“The plan is very considerate of the history of the Centennial District and looks to really highlight and utilize the remaining infrastructure from the district as remnants of the centennial that are worth preserving,” Broh said. “I think one of the advantages of the plan is that it looks at preservation. It looks at the landscape and environmental issues within the park, so it’s really in my mind the merging of the environment, of the history of the centennial and finding new life in all of the current venues for the future.”

Ott Lovell sees the district’s history as both a legacy and an economic opportunity for the neighborhood as well as the city.

“We owe it to ourselves to lift up this conversation, this amazing point in the city, country’s history and pass it on to future generations,” Ott Lovell said. “From an economic development standpoint it’s something that could just be incredible for this city, for us to be seen again as an amazing focal point for the sestercentennial, the semiquincentennial in 2026.”

For the conservancy, reaching the master plan’s goals has meant not only collaborating with MGA but also working with cultural institutions and various community organizations in order to gather input from those affected the most.

Broh said that there was a comprehensive and broad group of stakeholders who have “offered input into creating the master plan and looking at the revitalization of West Parkside.” Developing the plan has also increased communication between the cultural institutions and community groups in general. The Mann Center in particular, she said has increased programming that incorporates the interests of neighborhood groups.

As a member on the board of the West Parkside Business Association, Ott Lovell expressed a similar sentiment.

“[The association] is a group very involved in the master planning process, I know they believe that this kind of investment made into the park and immediate neighborhood will be such a catalyst for change and improvement.” Ott Lovell said. “It will be an incredible amount of work — a huge boulder to push up a mountain — [but] an incredible legacy for years to come if we can accomplish that.”

James E. Jones lived on 41st Street between Girard and Parkside avenues, just south of East Fairmount Park and attends a mosque on the street with Brahima Traore (right). Jones said he feels that there is room for improvement in the area.

Ott Lovell said that these hopes are reflected throughout the community, which has “gone through a lot” in the past 20 to 30 years.

“I think it’s a community that wants to be more involved in the park, has such great spirit, determination and love for their neighborhood and the park, and wants it to be seen as a clean, safe and viable resource for the residents,” Ott Lovell said. “Any improvements that can be made into the park itself will be welcomed, anything that will bring additional tourism, traffic to the neighborhood will only benefit the community, especially if they’re involved in the process.”

James E. Jones used to live near 41st Street and Girard Avenue, on the northern edge of the East Parkside community, just south of Parkside Avenue. He moved out of the area in 2008, but still attends a mosque near his old house.

Jones said he often rides his bike through the park to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and has noticed increased traffic since the Please Touch Museum moved in.

He said he has little knowledge of the Centennial District Master Plan or the conservancy but thinks improvements, such as more benches throughout the park, can be made. When asked if he would like to have some input into the plan, he paused momentarily and considered the question.

“I might be able to come up with some ideas of my own,” Jones said. “There’s always room for improvement.”

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