Setting the scene for massive Philly parks and recreation upgrade

 Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell visits Athletic Recreation Center in Brewerytown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell visits Athletic Recreation Center in Brewerytown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The parks and recreation centers we use in the city of Philadelphia are connective tissue, bringing together neighbors, families, and strangers. These shared spaces are in for some sprucing up through the city’s ambitious initiative known as Rebuilding Community Infrastructure or Rebuild.

The seven-year plan depends on $500 million in revenue from the city’s tax on sugary drinks — the same funding source for expanded pre-K and library renovations. Due to continuing legal wrangling, that money is not ready to be touched. Until it is, preliminary work is taking center stage.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, Commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation, is behind a lot of that work.

I caught up with her at 26th and Master streets in Brewerytown at Athletic Recreation Center, named after the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team of yore before its move to Oakland.

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On a muggy morning, the pool was full, kids played ping-pong inside, and we found a cool spot at a little table close to the action. At one point, Ott Lovell told me since Rebuild was announced, she’s been buying soda everyday. Through laughter she hinted she might singlehandedly help fund improvements to parks and rec centers.

Her motto: “Drink soda; build parks.”

Here are some excerpts of what she had to say.

On $500 million investment to improve 400-plus parks and rec centers

“The truth is, it doesn’t all get done. The initial assessment of all of our facilities, we would need probably closer to a billion dollars to do everything we need to do.

“So we are really looking where Rebuild dollars can help invest in facilities. That can have an impact on creating equity in our city, and then where we can help drive economic growth in changing communities.”

On priorities for the city’s parks

“I think the No. 1 thing our parks need is restrooms. Lighting is a big issue. One of the things we hear a ton of requests for is signage. People want to know what there is to do — and how they get around the parks.”

Figuring what recreation centers need most

“We really have our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the five, six blocks around a space, and we do that through pretty extensive community outreach. But we have great advisory councils who serve as volunteers and support the facilities.

“And just listening to the kids. They’re really smart and know what they like, and they’re not afraid to tell us.”

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