Venice Island construction to begin next week

The days are numbered for the old Venice Island Recreation Center, as the long-in-the-works, $46-million overhaul of the landmark Manayunk site gets underway next week.

It’s a complicated, three-phase project that over the next two-plus years will see the removal of the current rec center, playground and swimming pool; the installation of “The Big Tank” — a four million-gallon, underground stormwater basin for the Philadelphia Water Department; the creation of a first-of-its kind performing arts center, and restoration of the athletic courts and play areas.

Next week, workers will begin dismantling and removing the playground equipment, basketball nets and hockey court, with demolition of the rec center building scheduled for Aug. 29, said Don Bitterlich, senior project manager for Daniel J. Keating Company.

Temporary parking on the Cotton Street side of the site will be complete in December, as machines begin digging out the 400-foot long, 75 feet-wide, 25-foot deep underground retention pool on the Lock Street side of the 2.2-acre site.

The retention basin will catch and temporarily store diverted storm flow from the sanitary sewer running along the Manayunk Canal, said Joanne Dahme, a water department spokeswoman. By around April of 2013, the basin will have parking above it, and a water pumping station building with a green roof.

Dahme hosted a meeting Wednesday night with project officials, the Manayunk Development Corporation and some local business owners to discuss the work timetable. Once the site is cleared, an official and “very public” groundbreaking will take place in September, she said.

“Everybody’s been contacting us asking when’s it going to start, when’s it going to start. Well, now it’s going to start,” Dahme said.

The water department has set up a special web page with detailed information about the ongoing Venice Island project: . It will be updated as the project goes on, and may incorporate a live web camera feed to show the work in progress.

During the job, 80 to 100 workers will be at the location each day, with about 6,000 truck loads of soil and debris to be removed during the excavation of the basin, Bitterlich said. All trucks will use City Avenue to Main Street for access to Venice Island, making right-hand turns out of the site to avoid traffic tie-ups.

“We’re going to focus on everything coming across the Lock Street bridge,” Bitterlich said. But even that presents a challenge: The bridge is only built to handle a three-ton load, and is being reinforced with braces to accommodate up to 100 tons.

Work will continue year-round on weekdays, with the site fenced and secured during off times, Bitterlich said. The towpath is scheduled to remain open during the work and at this point, no closures of Main Street are anticipated.

Much of the vegetation will be cleared from the canal bank but workers, in cooperation with a PWD arborist, will tag “a couple hundred” trees that will stay, he said.

Once the basin, parking lot and pumping station are finished, work will shift to the Lock Street side. There, the 1960s-era rec center will give way to a performing arts venue with a 250-seat amphitheater dressed in light wood paneling, reminiscent of a miniature Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

For decades, the Venice Island rec center was the site of community programs, summer swimming and nearly year-round athletics. A city photo from 1960 shows a tidy waterfront playground tucked between then-working railroad tracks and the Schuylkill, a lifetime away from the forbidding, overgrown place Venice Island became in recent years.

In its new incarnation, the hockey rink and 3,200 square-foot playground area at Venice Island will be replaced one-for-one. The pool is being scrapped in favor of a spray ground area, and the basketball courts will be enlarged slightly to make them NCAA-regulation sized.

The performing arts center will also serve as a home base for the Parks and Recreation Department’s Young Performers Theater Camp, which currently operates out of rented space at the Annenberg Center, Dahme said.

“This is a tight little island, so we’re trying to squeeze as much as we can on here,” she said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at

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