Tree clearing for FDR park wetland sparks outrage

A trail in FDR park leads into the distance, with green grass and trees on either side. It's dusk and the sun is setting.

(Friends of FDR Park)

The renovation of a popular park in South Philadelphia is attracting renewed criticism over the cutting down of trees.

The multi-year, $250 million transformation of FDR park kicked off this spring with the groundbreaking of a new welcome center. The city recently announced the start of the “nature phase,” which begins with the creation of a 33-acre native wetland, to tackle chronic flooding that often leaves the playground and baseball fields wet. Contractors have started preparing the site for construction, a process that will ultimately include clearing dozens of acres of trees and brush.

“It’s a disaster, for a number of reasons,” said Kermit O, a park user and member of the city’s new Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, who says he went to the park this week and saw trees cut down. “It’s a strange sort of thing to create wetlands that already exist. Why are you terraforming a space that’s already doing the job of flood mitigation?”

O is an organizer with the coalition called the People’s Plan for FDR Park (PP4FDR), which has been calling for a pandemic-era redo of the park plan, driven by a new community engagement process facilitated by local organizations. Coalition members include Eastwick United, Philly Boricuas, PennEnvironment, Urban Creators, and the Clean Air Council.

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Under the current plan, the FDR park renovations will result in 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.

But the park’s current hydrology cannot support this, according to city officials. The wetland project will involve dredging to lower the elevation of a southern portion of the park, so it can hold more water, and installing two new tide gates.

“This will actually improve the way that the park can drain,” Charles Neer of WRT, the firm hired to design the park plan, told reporters last week. “Placement of that fill will make active recreation high and dry and usable for all.”

The wetland project will also involve planting of 7,000 new native trees and 1,700 bushes and woody shrubs, according to city officials. They say this will re-establish the native habitat that preceded the land’s use as a park.

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The project is being funded by the Philadelphia International Airport, as an offset for the disruption of other wetlands in the airport’s cargo expansion project.  

Soil dredged from the wetland project will go to raise up athletic facilities to keep them dry. It’ll also create a hill on a naturalized, abandoned golf course some park goers have affectionately termed “the Meadows.” 

The first phase of the wetland project will ultimately mean around 58 acres are cleared of trees and vegetation, said airport spokesperson Heather Redfern, in an email Friday. This area accounts for land that will be used to create the wetlands, site haul roads, and the soil hill. The clearing process is expected to take two months, said Fairmount Park Conservancy spokesperson Cari Feiler Bender. Additional clearing will occur whenever a project requires re-grading, she said. The nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy is leading the park renovation.

Some are outraged by the site clearing.  Construction vehicles have even reportedly been vandalized, with wires cut and sugar put in diesel tanks (the People’s Plan for FDR Park Coalition has said no one in the coalition is responsible for or condones the damage).

Thoai Nguyen, CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC), a member of the People’s Plan coalition, is not satisfied with the promise of new tree plantings to replace what’s lost.

“It’s going to take decades for whatever new trees that you’re planting to mature to a level that provides a green canopy in this part of South Philadelphia,” he said.

Nguyen said his organization was never told that trees would be removed.

“I’ve used the park for all 47 years of my life spent in South Philly,” he added. “I have a lot of stake in this.”

A recent update to the plan drops the golf driving range proposed in 2019, and increases the portion of the park dedicated to natural areas, like woodlands, ponds, and wetlands, by over a dozen acres — to 60% of the total park area. But some are still dissatisfied.

“The City’s updated master plan for FDR Park is a vast improvement but far from where Philadelphians need it to go,” State Sen. Nikil Saval wrote on social media. He urged the city to seek an alternative plan that preserves the Meadows.

An online petition titled “Hands off FDR Park” has garnered thousands of signatures.

“The Meadows have become an integral part of FDR Park since they were opened to the public, and I continue to support the diverse coalition of thousands of community members in calling upon the City to revisit the FDR Park Master Plan to protect the Meadows,” said At-large City Councilmember Helen Gym.

Fairmount Park Conservancy and city officials defend the current park design as the result of an 18-month process of public engagement involving thousands of residents.

“The resulting community-driven plan found a balance between the water, nature, and recreation that define FDR park,” Feiler Bender said in an emailed statement on behalf of the nonprofit and the city.

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