Work begins on one of Rebuild Philly’s biggest project yet: $20 million rebuild at Vare Rec Center

Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson, other officials, and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center
Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson, other officials, and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson, other officials, and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson, other officials, and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

A groundbreaking makes it official; the Vare Playground in Grays Ferry will undergo a $20 million rebuild using money from the city’s soda tax.

Mayor Jim Kenney, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson joined other city officials at the 100-year-old facility for the groundbreaking this week. Plans call for a complete makeover as part of the Rebuild Philadelphia effort, which uses money from the city’s sweetened beverage tax to fix playgrounds and libraries, in addition to paying for Pre-K educational opportunities in the city.

The facility has been a landmark in the community, but its age has been showing and the building has been crumbling. Now the pool is empty and the recreation center is surrounded by fencing in preparation for its replacement by a new almost 20,000 square foot facility with two different gyms and a multi-purpose room that can be converted into two classrooms.

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The rebuild will also include new basketball courts, an outdoor classroom, and a synthetic turf field, which is designed to replace a field that Coach Anthony Meadows of the South Philly Sharks football team said can’t come soon enough.

“When we’re practicing, usually we have clouds of dirt,” Meadows said. “When we’ve got kids running around, it’s dirt. We’re breathing in dirt. They’re breathing in dirt. When you come to the field, you’re going to be dirty.”

Former Eagles’ linebacker Connor Barwin, who founded the Make the World Better Foundation during his first season with the team, said his group and the Eagles are both involved in the redo of the facility. Barwin, who now works as the Eagles’ director of player development, called the project a study in teamwork.

“It’s easy to stand there by yourself, have an opinion, not talk to anybody, not work with other people, not listen and learn,” Barwin said. “But I’m telling you, as somebody that’s been a part of a team my whole life and I always will be, I am so happy to be part of this team here in South Philly.”

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Yasmeen Abbott, president of the Vare Advisory Council, said the group has been on the phone “countless hours every day” to hold elected officials to their promises about the facility, which was among the first on the rebuild list.

The project started with a planned budget of $10 million. The budget doubled as the project shaped up. Abbot said she felt like she was waiting for the building to be taken down, so that a top-notch facility could rise in its place. She vowed to see the project through until completion and would not let up on city officials, an effort that includes calling and even going to city hall to make sure the vision is completed.

The project is scheduled to be finished by next year. Mayor Jim Kenney said he would be back to cut the ribbon on the facility even if he’s out of office. Kenney’s term ends in January of 2024.

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