No walk in the park


As the Martin Luther King towers came crumbling down in 1999, residents witnessed a glimmer of hope in the rubble.

The revitalization project that began after the demolition reinvigorated the area’s housing market, while changing the once-gloomy mindset of Hawthorne residents, said Patricia Bullard, Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition president.

"Attitudes have changed," she said. "People seem to be prouder of living here than they were in the past. Removing the towers removed a stigma of living in public housing."

Part of this rejuvenation plan – officially titled the Martin Luther King Revitalization Hope VI Project – included a 37,000-square-foot park on the northwest corner of 12th and Catharine streets, Bullard said.

However, community members may never get the chance to look upon manicured grass or seek shade underneath the trees. Instead, Bullard and her group have gotten word the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) might build new homes on the site.

"The community is becoming too dense with housing," Bullard said. "We’re going to be stacked on each other like sardines. We need some open space."

In 2003, Bullard’s group, as well as residents and students from the University of the Arts, collaborated to design an acceptable layout for the park. They agreed on the construction of walkways, shrubbery and trees native to Pennsylvania and an elevated platform to be used for community events and concerts. Pennrose, one of the project’s developers, conducted the meeting and a representative for PHA was in attendance.

For PHA to go back on its word and ignore the efforts of those involved is a slap in the face, Bullard said.

"Thousands of man hours have been put into this park," she said.

In conjunction with the Philadelphia Water Department, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society secured a $92,000 grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to build a storm runoff system at the park. The money, which PHA agreed to match in a letter to the society, is now in danger of vanishing, Bullard said.

A PHA spokesperson could not comment on the grant.

PHA ORIGINALLY ENTERED into an agreement with developers Pennrose and Universal Companies to build housing at the project site, 13th and Fitzwater streets, in 2000. The project called for 247 units to be built in four phases, PHA spokesperson Kirk Dorn said earlier this week. There are 109 homeownership units, while the remaining are rentals, he said. The park was part of this project.

Since construction was lagging, PHA terminated its arrangement with Pennrose after it completed two phases.

"The project fell seriously behind schedule, so we worked out terms to end our agreement with Pennrose," Dorn said. "PHA has been developing the latter phases on its own, with Universal" working as a community liaison.

PHA anticipates a project completion date of 2006.

The Hawthorne community conducted a meeting last month primarily to discuss the progress of the project. When an attendee brought up the park, a PHA representative said the $200,000 allocated for the park’s construction was gone, Bullard said.

"With regard to money being set aside for that [park], Pennrose made representations to the community regarding a park, but those were not PHA’s representations. Pennrose never had the funding and PHA never approved the representations," Dorn said.

Numerous calls to Pennrose were not returned by press time.

Acting on the heels of the area’s real-estate boom, the authority plans to utilize the proposed park site.

"When we began this work five years ago, the land was virtually worthless," Dorn said. "You couldn’t give away this land. With our rebuilding of the site and other construction, the land has become extremely valuable and so PHA is acting in a responsible way with public tax dollars. We’re now in a position where we would like to sell this piece of land" at market value. PHA has the option to sell the property that would have housed the park or develop it on its own.

Dorn suggested interested community groups could purchase the property for their own use. But Bullard does not feel it is the community’s responsibility to acquire the necessary funds.

"I don’t see why we have to buy the land when the site was set aside for the park," she said.

Through talks with state and local officials, as well as PHA representatives, discussions have lead to other possible park sites, said Bullard, who is not supportive of the ideas. One notion is placing the park at 13th and Fitzwater streets on land that now houses an abandoned community center. Bullard is not comfortable with this, since other community members do not want to see that building demolished. Another plan is placing the park within the confines of the Hawthorne Recreation Center, 12th and Carpenter streets.

"There’s no room there to even think about putting in a park," Bullard said.

While saddened by the situation, PHA will continue to do what is best, Dorn said.

"We feel very badly that Pennrose said what it did about the park. The people in that community are very reasonable and are only asking for what they feel would be best for their neighborhood," he said. "PHA has a waiting list with 40,000 families on it. We have a responsibility to do the most financially sensible thing on behalf of those families."

PHA does not plan to take legal action on the developer, Dorn said.

Continuing its fight, Bullard’s group is looking into having the proposed park site transferred over to the authority of the city’s Department of Recreation. This, she said, would prevent the land from future development.

Ignoring the busy holiday season, the coalition has organized a noon rally Dec. 17 at the site to take its protest to the streets, Bullard said.

"We’re fine with new housing, but you get to the point where it’s too much," she said. "We need a park here."