The massive redo of FDR Park in South Philadelphia will take a slightly different course, after the city and its partners updated their plan to include more acres of natural areas and fewer acres of athletic facilities.
The updated design drops the golf driving range that was part of the plan released in 2019, and increases the portion of the park dedicated to natural areas, like trails, woodlands, meadows, ponds, and wetlands, by over a dozen acres — to 60% of the total park area.
“We think it’s going to be really, really important as we look at this as a habitat refuge for humans and animals going into the future,” said Maura McCarthy, director of the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy, which is leading the park renovation.
Officials said the change came after First Tee, the former concessionaire at the park, left to pursue other projects in the city; the park’s Bellaire Mansion received a historic designation requiring larger landscaping buffer; and an ecological audit of the site identified existing and possible future high-quality habitats.
“This gives us an opportunity to move parts of the plan around so that we can minimize conflict and maximize areas of potential habitat creation,” McCarthy said.
When the $250 million makeover is finished, FDR Park will include dozens of athletic fields and courts, miles of trails, a “great lawn” for celebrations and picnics, a destination playground, and a kayak and canoe launch.
Some Philadelphians have criticized the plan because it would build athletic fields on an abandoned golf course that has grown into what some park goers see as a “magical” natural meadow. Renderings provided by city and Fairmount Park Conservancy officials show in the new design that part of the former golf course would become forested wetland and a hill.
The park’s physical transformation officially began this spring with the groundbreaking of a new welcome center, which will turn the park’s historic guardhouse and stables into public restrooms, a cafe, an event space, and an equipment rental area.
The upcoming “nature phase” of the renovation will start with a 33-acre coastal forested wetland in the southwestern corner of the park that breaks ground soon.
For the first time since the park was built in 1914, officials say, the southwestern corner of the park will be a native ecosystem.
“This area has very much wanted to turn back into a marsh,” said Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “We wanted to create a park there. But Mother Nature wants it to remain a marsh.”
The wetland project will involve dredging a significant amount of soil, clearing the area of current vegetation, planting thousands of new trees, bushes, and shrubs, and installing two new tide gates. It’s meant to help fix chronic flooding in the park and make it more resilient to climate change.
“This will actually improve the way that the park can drain,” said Charles Neer, with WRT, the firm hired to design the park plan. “Placement of that fill will make active recreation high and dry and usable for all.”
The dredged soil will be used to raise up parts of the former golf course, to create picnic groves, basketball and tennis courts, and several sports fields. Officials say parkgoers will maintain access to parts of the abandoned golf course during the wetland construction.
The wetland is being built by the Philadelphia International Airport to offset the disruption of other wetlands in the airport’s cargo expansion project. The 33-acre size of the planned wetland at FDR park is smaller than the 45 acres the airport and the other partners originally announced.
The airport is still awaiting a permit approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but site staging, mowing, and clearing could all happen this month, said Division of Aviation Interim CEO Keith Brune.
The “nature phase” of the park redo is expected to take until 2026 and cost $45 million. Other elements include 23 acres of sedge meadow with boardwalks, restoration of Shedbrook Creek, a forest with a canopy structure for recreation, and a plant nursery.
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