The Oval returns for third season, will it see a fourth?

If The Oval started three years ago as an experiment to see if an underused part of the Parkway could become a lively – if temporary – public space, consider the concept proven.

What began as a scrappy test balloon on a shoestring budget has become a summer signature space, brought to us by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Come Thursday, The Oval will reopen for 2015. Crews are putting the finishing touches on a transformed Eakins Oval, turning it from a parking lot set in parkland with monumental sycamore trees, beautiful sculpture and fountains into a six-week-long fun zone with public art, family-friendly games, movies and music, mobile food and a beer garden.

“It came out of the gate as an unknown two years ago, we pulled it together in a matter of six to seven weeks… but it was phenomenal beyond our dreams,” said Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of parks and facilities.

And each year the draw has only grown. Last year’s attendance more than doubled to 80,000 visitors. Eakins Oval’s alter identity as The Oval, has been cemented in the public consciousness, as one of the city’s many temporary summertime delights. Programming partners and sponsors have not only stuck with The Oval but their numbers have grown, too. (The budget this year is $300,000, an increase from last year by $50,000, and nearly half is covered by sponsorships.)

This year the programming will be a recognizable mix of fitness classes, live music, art activities, movie screenings, and a rotating cast of food trucks. New additions include learn to ride classes for kids and adults from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and disc golf from the Sedgley Woods Disc Golf crew.

“We talked about actually minimizing the programming calendar, because we noticed last year that while the programs were well attended it wasn’t critical,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, Fairmount Park Conservancy’s executive director. “I think the first year we had to program the hell out of it to get people there.”

But nearly all of the programming partners were eager to come back, so the calendar of events remains packed from July 16 through August 23, Wednesdays through Sundays.

Though the programming may be familiar, each year The Oval’s visual identity is recast through a public artwork, a giant mural painted on the parking lot that sets the tone. First it was “the Beach, the Blanket and the Boardwalk,” then it was a Candy Coated “Magic Carpet.” This year’s art-on-asphalt is a “Summer Kaleidoscope,” courtesy of the Mural Arts Program and Baltimore-based public art duo, Jessie and Katey. It’s a boldly graphic pattern with bright geometries in aqua, mustard, plum, fuchsia, cobalt, tomato, turquoise, lime, and peach. That palette is being carried through the lanterns hung high in the sycamores and into the plantings and surfaces in the overhauled beer garden.

The beer garden also gets a new look this year from Gale Nurseries, once again the work of designer Brian Dragon. A new fence, thanks to the Saint-Gobain exhibit, contains a busy arrangement that look something like the game Minecraft  – 4,200 recycled black plastic crates have been bound, stacked, and shuffled into a busy variety of planters, tables, and seating . They’ll too pop with color thanks to plants and cushions that pick up on the kaleidoscope.

“I take pride in the fact that it’s really family-friendly, it’s largely free, and it is not only a beer garden,” Focht said. “The beer garden is an important element and it contributes to the success of The Oval, but The Oval is not about being a beer garden. The Oval is about an artistic statement in this space… It’s about creating a space that is fun for people to use, however they want to engage with it.”

Feedback from the neighborhoods flanking the parkway has been overwhelmingly positive, Focht said. If anything neighbors want The Oval to run longer. (Its start date will always be constrained by the 4th of July and as long as Made in America takes place in Philly over Labor Day, that’s the other bookend. If Labor Day didn’t feature a major parkway event, The Oval could conceivably operate on a reduced schedule through September.)

But beyond this summer, The Oval’s future is far from certain. For this Parkway placemaking experiment to continue the next mayor will have to buy into the project.

“As far as the future, we don’t know. We committed to doing this for three years,” Focht said. It was temporary by design, a way to see what might work, what people respond to, and to inform long-term infrastructure improvements in order to make Eakins Oval a place better suited for all kinds of public uses.

This year, for example, the city invested $45,000 to fully irrigate The Oval. That could lead to more permanent improvements like drinking fountains, public restrooms, and better ability to maintain the space.

The concept for turning The Oval into a seasonal destination was born out of the 2013 More Park, Less Way plan to help invigorate the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, authored by PennPraxis in partnership with the city and conservancy.

“It’s all about taking More Park, Less Way to the next level because I think we have proven the concept,” said Lovell.

The question now becomes, “Can we take this to another level of design in the next administration… where we think about what kind of design can support those multiple functions,” Lovell said. “We’ve got to figure out a better way to get to the space.”

As any pedestrian can attest, crossing at The Oval is a little like playing Russian Roulette, and drivers and cyclists know to be on high alert while circling Eakins Oval. To improve that situation a host of public agencies will have to continue to try to crack that nut to ensure better connections between parkway spaces and safe passage for all.

Political will is required to tackle that problem but it’s got sturdy backing: People have already started seeing The Oval differently, as a destination in its own right, a public pleasure.

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