Venice Island work to begin ‘any day now’

Work could be about to start on the long-awaited overhaul of the Venice Island Recreation Center in Manayunk.

The Philadelphia Water Department recently awarded a general contract on the $45 million transformation of the disused playground to Keating Construction. A notice to proceed on the work is expected “any day now,” PWD spokeswoman Joanne Dahme said this week.

Long talked-about and the subject of several previous false starts, the current plan for Venice Island center will replace the old swimming pool with a sprayground, create a 250-seat performing arts space, upgrade athletics courts and include 195 parking spaces.

A key feature is a sewage overflow storage tank needed for stormwater management on the flood-prone slip of land between the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill River. The performing arts building will also include “iconographic signage” visible from the nearby Schuylkill Expressway, according to plans.

Until the work actually begins, the playground at Venice Island remains nearly abandoned, cut off from busy Main Street, blocked to childrens strollers by a large pipe stretching across the Cotton Street entrance.

The play equipment and climbers sit unused, growing slimy under overgrown trees, desolate on a sunny summer day when nearby Hillside Recreation Center was opening its pool for the season. The Manayunk Neighborhood Council still meets in the dingy rec center building, and the basketball courts see some use, but there’s nothing kid-friendly about Venice Island.

Even after the work, the Venice Island site will be geared less as a playground than a venue; planning documents make comparisons to public-private performance and arts spaces in other cities, not recreation facilities.

Next door to the rec center, behind a tall chain-link fence, sits 1 Cotton St., on the former Connelly Container site, where the MNC recently won a court decision in a long-running battle over a proposed residential development.

In a ruling filed June 14, an appeals panel reversed a Zoning Board of Adjustment decision to allow a 205-unit complex just next to the rec center. The four-story building would have had units about 1.5 feet above the 100-year flood level established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a parking facility sitting below grade and entirely within the floodplain.

Waterford Development LLC had first proposed a five-story, 270-unit building at the site in 1999, and won a variance to build by arguing a hardship created by the floodplain. In 2005, they re-submitted a smaller version of the plan and won a ZBA approval for that.

The court’s opinion notes that in the meantime, the site’s zoning changed from a G2 industrial designation to RC1 residential, and FEMA re-mapped the area and removed Venice Island from the flood plain.

The MNC’s ultimately successful argument was that the zoning change and the amount of time elapsed meant a new variance was needed. The appeals court agreed and reversed the ZBA’s decision.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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