An ongoing battle between East Falls residents and a suburban-based development corporation over funding for a soon-to-be built neighborhood playground may take a legal turn.
Nearly a decade ago, officials with the Westrum Development Corp. agreed to contribute $50,000 in matching funds to the cause whenever the East Falls Community Council decided on a location and was ready to build. This after the civic group formally supported a number of zoning changes Westrum needed to construct the Hilltop at Falls Ridge, a townhome development set behind Ridge Avenue near the Falls Bridge.
“[Westrum] came to us and said, ‘what do you need in the neighborhood?’ and people said, ‘We really don’t have a playground,'” said Tom Sauerman, president of EFCC.
In reply, Westrum said, “‘you give us all the variances and we’ll give you $50,000 for the playground’,” said Sauerman.
The deal didn’t come into play until a few years ago, when the community finally chose to put the playground at Inn Yard Park, an underutilized swath of land between Kelly Drive and Ridge Avenue.
Sauerman says EFCC members called Westrum with the news, but were told that times were tough and that the company couldn’t scrape together the cash for the project. A number of residents, including Sauerman, weren’t convinced and remain skeptical of the response they’ve now heard repeatedly.
“This is a multi-million, if not billion-dollar organization,” said Sauerman. “$50,000 is not a big deal.”
John Westrum, CEO of Westrum Development, maintains that his company is unable at this time to contribute the $50,000, but said that he’s not trying to “shirk” the agreement.
“We are trying to get this completed and trying to provide the funds necessary but we also have to sell houses and keep people employed in order to pay for it,” said Westrum. Sales at the Hilltop development have been slow, he said.
Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., whose Fourth District includes East Falls, has spoken to Westrum on behalf of the residents, but has yet to work out a deal. Jones’ office has so far contributed more than $190,000 to the playground effort from its capital budget.
“We are still encouraged that there will be an agreement between Westrum and the community and it will be fulfilled,” said Michelle Wilson, Jones’ communications director.
Westrum said some “arrangements” have been made. He would not comment further on details, saying that they were between him and Councilman Jones.
As negotiations continue, EFCC may add some teeth to their payment requests. At its next general meeting on Nov. 14, the group is scheduled to discuss sending a formal letter to Westrum that Sauerman said would essentially threaten a lawsuit.
Either way, the basics for the playground at Inn Yard Park will be put in place, said Sauerman. Gina Snyder, executive of the East Falls Development Corporation, said construction is set to start in late November. She couldn’t be more excited about the project becoming a reality.
“This is going to allow people with young children, toddlers, all the way up to 12, to have playground equipment,” said Snyder. Inn Yard Park only has an open field and a basketball court.
“It sort of adds to the life of the Riverfront Business District to have more people down there enjoying themselves and having fun,” said Snyder.