Tree clearing in FDR Park gets approval from Philly zoning board

The decision comes days after a group of residents filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the park renovation.

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Mature trees shade a picnic area which is slated to become a soccer field

Mature trees shade a picnic area which is slated to become a soccer field at FDR Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Fairmount Park Conservancy can proceed in clearing 48 healthy, large trees at FDR Park in South Philly, to make way for several sports fields and courts.

The Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the nonprofit a special exception to remove heritage trees from the property in order to move forward with part of the $250 million renovation of the park that started in 2022.

“The restoration of the park represents a significant public investment that will enable the majority of the park’s 348 acres to return to nature as lakes, wetlands, meadows and nature trails,” said Meredith Trego, a lawyer representing the Fairmount Park Conservancy to the zoning board, during a hearing last month. “The removal of these 48 trees is necessary to bring … the picnic and play phase into fruition.”

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During Wednesday’s hearing, Zoning Board of Appeals members William Bergman, Ismail Shahid, Thomas Holloman and James Snell unanimously voted to approve the special exception without discussion.

Their decision comes after close to a dozen South Philly residents filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the renovation, arguing it would radically change the park and require City Council and court approval.

The phase of the project in question will build two picnic areas, a playground, five multi-purpose turf playing fields, four baseball fields, four basketball courts, tennis or pickleball courts and parking. It’s part of a bigger project that will include a new welcome center, field house, playgrounds, nature trails and a tidal wetland.

The planning commission recommended the ZBA approve the special exception for removal of the 48 heritage trees because the conservancy has shown that the proposed project “cannot be practically redesigned to protect the heritage trees,” a commission representative told ZBA members last week.

In addition to the 48 healthy heritage trees, the conservancy plans to cut down 16 heritage trees deemed “dead, damaged, or diseased” and over 375 smaller trees. The nonprofit will replace these with more than 1,000 saplings that are 2.5 inches in diameter.

The proposal has sparked significant opposition.

“If you saw the gorgeous trees that are to be killed because of this application, you would vote against it as we have,” Barbara Capozzi, co-chair of the board of Friends of FDR Park and longtime president of the Packer Park Civic Association, told the ZBA during a virtual hearing last week.

Roughly two dozen members of the public commented on the appeal during last week’s meeting. Only those who had not already submitted a written comment were allowed to speak. A spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development said last week the ZBA had received around 1,400 letters about the project, but the office could not provide a tally for the number in support or opposition.

Proponents of the renovation plan, including youth sports advocates, argue there’s a shortage of fields in good repair throughout the city. They say new facilities at FDR Park would mean better athletic opportunities for the city’s young people.

City Parks & Recreation officials have said that the five multipurpose fields could serve more than 60,000 youth athletes annually.

Sherell Robinson, a parent who commented during last week’s hearing, sees the plan as effective land management that will lead to better health outcomes for locals.

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“Nature has to share,” Robinson said. “We have to inhabit the park as well.”

But last month, dues-paying members of two Registered Community Organizations voted against the part of the project that would clear the trees, in its current form.

“I am probably the leading advocate for FDR Park’s revival over the past 25 years,” Friends of FDR Park co-chair and Packer Park Civic Association president Capozzi told the ZBA last week. “Fairmount Park [Conservancy] is giving us fields, yet cutting down the very trees that protect us from the noise, the lights, the music that these fields on the northern portion of FDR will generate.”

Capozzi suggested eliminating one planned field and two playing courts, and shifting the rest of the design to the west to preserve trees and a clubhouse. She said before the ZBA issued its decision that Packer Park Civic Association would appeal it if the board approved the special exception.

Others who’ve come out against the plan argue that the rentable sports fields will make public parkland less accessible, that the artificial turf fields will be toxic to athletes, despite promises from the conservancy to buy PFAS-free turf, and that the clearing of dozens of mature trees would set the city back on its goal to grow the tree canopy to reduce the urban heat island effect   and the impacts of climate change.

“It’s as if one hand of the city doesn’t know — or consider important — what the other is doing or the goals it has set,” said South Philly resident Adam Woods. “The field crisis is real, but we should not be forced to choose between our fields and our natural resources.”

Mayor Cherelle Parker expressed her support for the park renovation at a rally last month.

“Everything that I’ve seen in the plans being proposed has been thought through very carefully about diversity, equity and inclusion, and how we make the park better so it’s more welcoming for everybody, for people, no matter their race, class, socio-economic status or ZIP code,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone feels welcome here.”

In an email, Fairmount Park Conservancy Director of Communications Sarah Peterson said the organization is grateful to members of the public who took time to testify in support of the plan.

“This plan will make FDR Park an equitable, accessible, and world-class park both in terms of its recreation and environmental impact,” Peterson wrote. “As with each previous step of this project, we will continue to engage community members to ensure that their input is heard and considered.”

A spokesperson for the Fairmount Park Conservancy said last week that once the organization has acquired all permits and safely mobilized a contractor, officials expect that site clearing will begin.

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