NW Philly residents express concern with Wissahickon treetop adventure proposal

Plans for an outdoor recreation course in the Wissahickon Valley met with sizable neighborhood opposition on Wednesday night.

At a public meeting held at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, representatives from the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation met with nearly 100 residents to inform them about details of the Tree Top Adventure Sports Program, envisioned for installation in the park near Wigard Ave.

Bob Allen, director of property and concessions management for PPR, described the typical set-up of the program, a tree top rope-course typically arranged in a five-acre park setting. Wood platforms are installed high in the trees, and can be as high as 50 feet above ground.

All platforms are secured externally, thereby avoiding damage to the trees themselves.

In a prior NewsWorks interview, Allen said that a Tree Top Adventure course could generate as much as $50,000 annually in concession fees for the city. Any money earned through the program would be reinvested in environmental programs in the Wissahickon Valley.

Ultimately, PPR won’t necessarily select the vendor that offers the most revenue to the city, but one “who has the capacity to perform and operate the way the city would like to structure the concession,” Allen said, taking into account environmental sustainability as well as questions of access for all, not just those who can afford the estimated $35-$55 ticket price.

Voices of opposition 

Prior to the meeting, several local organizations issued statements explaining their position on the project.

After being approached by PRR in the summer of 2012 to contribute input, Friends of the Wissahickon engaged in a fact-finding tour of the GoApe facility in Rock Creek Preserve in Rockville, MD.

Delegates from FOW were pleased at the usage of the trees, low impact construction practices, high standards of care for the canopy, and a willingness on the part of the GoApe operators to work with local community groups to promote environmental values.

However, FOW is withholding support for the proposal until a variety of conditions are addressed by PPR and the vendor, including the seeking of community support, traffic impact studies, and various issues pertaining to the site itself.

The Philadelphia Chapter of the Pennsylvania Equine Council expressed opposition, citing the use of the Wissahickon Valley’s character as a “quiet woodland oasis in the city” visited by over one million people annually.

“A sports adventure course is contrary to the very nature of this park, and is not in keeping with the image the taxpayers and visiting public hold of the Wissahickon,” the Philadelphia PEC said in their statement, asking the PPR to, “preserve this park as a place for imaginative exploration in a natural setting unparalleled anywhere else in the city of Philadelphia.”

Concerns for trees, wildlife and security personnel 

Many of the residents present spoke out against the project at the meeting, which ran for almost two and-a-half hours. Concerns varied greatly, from impact on the trees and wildlife to the further taxing of limited police and park ranger resources in and around the park.

Melanie Butenski of Roxborough said it was “overwhelmingly obvious” that her neighborhood was opposed to the plan, relating that many have felt under siege recently due to recent development – and demolition – in her community.

“Our community is not being developed in a manner that we deserve,” adding that increased traffic could further endanger nearby residents. Butenski also felt that the proposed $50,000 annual revenue to the city was wanting.

“$50,000 is nothing – nothing – and the hardship it’s going to put on the poor people who live here, work here, and who really care about the community, it’s not right,” she said. “That’s not enough.”

Don Simon, a Roxborough resident long involved in neighborhood issues, said he was skeptical of the project, indicating that he’s seen many projects brought forward by “honest and sincere people,” only to have them “blow up in the community’s face.”

Jeanette Turnbull, a resident of Chestnut Hill, noted that wooded areas like the proposed site are few and far between in the park, and nothing should be done to jeopardize them.

“It’s most unnatural for a natural area,” she said of the proposal.

‘Enhancing the ability’ to enjoy nature 

However, opposition wasn’t unanimous, with several highlighting its potential for introducing the general public to the appeal of natural settings.

John Macoretta, scout master for Boy Scout Troop 474, which utilizes the Scout House on Wigard Ave., lent his endorsement to the project, saying that it will bring much-needed improvements to the area surrounding the site.

Tom Landsmann of Roxborough related that he was an outdoor enthusiast, with those interests being solidified as a youth. He felt that the proposed recreation center could serve as a means on engaging younger persons, noting that in his outdoor volunteer work, the majority of participants are middle-aged, or older.

“Kids today, they don’t play in parks,” Landsmann observed. “With everything there are a cost and a benefit, and I’d rather get the younger generation out and appreciating the park.”

Jeff Craighead, an engineer and 57-year resident of Roxborough, related that people have historically altered their environment for the purpose of getting better access to nature. Craighead said it struck him as ironic that one of the most beloved attributes of the Wissahickon Valley – Forbidden Drive – is not natural at all.

While acknowledging that traffic and parking are valid issues, Craighead wasn’t so sure about the impact on the environment.

“I see it as enhancing our ability to enjoy nature,” he said of the project.

Perspectives from Rep. DeLissio and Councilman Jones 

State Representative Pam DeLissio, who was present at the meeting – having just found out about it that afternoon – observed that the people present had high levels of concerns.

“I think there’s a degree of accuracy of truth mixed in with the emotion,” said DeLissio, whose 194th District covers Manayunk and Roxborough. “I’m looking for facts – since I only found out about it hours ago, I’m on a fact-finding mission.”

For herself, DeLissio was attempting to understand the project’s timeline, having asked pointed questions during the meeting in regard to the bidding process.

“I’m concerned about the references to one operator,” she said. “The proposal acts as if they are a foregone conclusion.”

While not present at Wednesday’s meeting due to a standing commitment, Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. met with representatives from Tree Top Adventure on Feb. 13, asking them at the time about environmental impact both to trees and to surrounding communities.

When queried for his response to the meeting on Thursday morning, Councilman Jones said that he remains open to the project, but won’t discount the voices of his constituents.

“I listened, and I’m hoping that the community works it out,” he said. “If they don’t, we won’t do it.”

Referencing other civic projects that met with initial resistance, Jones said that residential voices must be considered when considering such work. 

“If it doesn’t fit, we aren’t going to force it,” he said. “But we will have the discussions always; that’s important.”

Next steps 

From here, Allen said that PPR will take into consideration the feedback gleaned from Wednesday’s meeting, along with that of the dozen stakeholder organizations involved in the project. PPR staff will meet and discuss the project internally and will seek approvals from the various city agencies vested in the plan. 

Ultimately, Allen observed, final decision for the project moving forward rests with Deputy Mayor Michael Diberardinis, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, who would then present it to City Council.

While no definitive timeline is set, Allen estimated that the project would likely take less than a year to introduce.

“We have a lot more steps to go through to bring it to reality,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.