Venice Island demolition is finally underway

The smell of freshly cut wood wafts across the Manayunk Canal and the growl of a wood chipper interrupts the quiet peace of the Towpath behind Main Street. Past a tall, unfinished chain link fence, work is finally commencing on the long-awaited rehab of Manayunk’s Venice Island Recreation Center, with workers removing the trees and massive weeds of the long-neglected community space in readiness for the new plans.

With a new 4 million-gallon underground stormwater basin finally on track to be placed at the site, surface improvements to Venice Island will include refurbished hockey and basketball courts and a 250-seat performing arts center, while the existing dilapidated pool will be removed in favor of a cheaper, easier-to-maintain spray-ground area.

The $46-million project has been so long in coming that some locals seem skeptical that work will continue.

“I’ve seen people in and out of there, I’ve seen work start and stop,” says Manayunk resident David Bevan, viewing the work-crew during a mid-day stroll along the Towpath. “I’m not sure if this work will keep going on.”

Jane Lipton of the Manayunk Development Corporation recalls that talks about the new water basin and above-ground improvements to the park began back in the mid-90s, but that actual planning has been in place since about 2004. She projects that the new Venice Island will take up to 32 months to complete, through several phases, from the relocation of the adjacent parking lot to the digging and insulation of the new water basin to the demolition of the existing graffiti-laced recreation center for the new performing arts center.

Many residents and local employees who spoke with NewsWorks on Tuesday were not aware that work was underway, or of the extent of the new Venice Island plans.

“You can talk a lot about something, but people don’t really notice it until it happens,” says Kevin Smith of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council.

“Main Street may not be ready for this,” he adds. “This is quite an endeavor. Construction will be noisy, and it will take a long time.” Potentially disruptive side-effects of the progress will include a lot of noise and dust, and even ground vibrations felt by Main Street businesses, as drilling for the new water basin hits bedrock. 

However, Smith says the temporary inconvenience will be worth it: the finished performing arts center and revamped sporting surfaces will be “a great amenity for the neighborhood.”

Manayunk residents and employees have mixed reactions about the work.

Cindy Clark, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who works at Bourbon Blue restaurant on the canal, has her reservations about the project. She is disappointed to see the pool go, and points to a new residential complex proposed to go in next-door to the planned center. She worries that the new center will be less friendly to local children than the former playground, and that the space will cater primarily to the new apartment-dwellers.

At The Attic, a thrift store on Main Street, employee Dani Beth Riccardi, who recently moved to the area, worries that the extra attention the new center will bring will alter the peaceful character of Main Street.

“I like the small-town feel here,” she says, noting that Manayunk is less crowded and more community-oriented than Center City Philadelphia. “I’m crossing my fingers that the center doesn’t drive too much more traffic to the area.”

Main Street jewelry-shop owner and designer Sami Nakishbendi takes a different view of the chance for increased visitors.

“There are a lot of bars and restaurants here, but things have been tough in this recession for retailers on Main Street,” he says. “Instead of going to the Walnut Street Theater or Broad Street, people can come here. That’s a positive thing, for sure,” he notes of the proposed performing arts center. He hopes Venice Island’s new users will result in more foot traffic, boosting Main Street stores’ sales. “The more the merrier!” he says.

Completion of the project is up to three years away, but after so many years of the planning process, many are heartened to see the work begin.

“It’ll be done when it’s done,” Smith says. “But it’s good to see that they’re getting started.”

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