Mayor Jim Kenney and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stood with CHOP, Parks & Rec, and Free Library executives, as well as the Zameska family.
Staff Photo by Bill Chenevert
Many neighbors near the intersection of Broad and Morris streets have been eyeing a construction site for more than two years now. What kind of eye is the question: an eye that laments the disappearance of DiSilvestro’s park, playground and basketball courts; an eye that misses a lively South Philly Free Library Branch; or an eye that gleams perhaps at the idea that, once it’s finished, it’ll be a state-of-the-art hub of the community with a brand new library, recreation center, and health clinic.
It all came together when the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) realized that it wanted to expand its services in South Philly from St. Agnes, 1930 S. Broad St., and the City of Philadelphia said, essentially, why don’t you let us give you the block where the library, DiSilvestro, and the City’s Health Center 2 lives and you can design and build a brand new hub of literacy, health and learning? The result is the brand new South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center, which threw a grandiose ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday morning.
CHOP patients have been visiting the third floor of the space for a couple weeks now, the park space behind the building isn’t quite finished, and the library on the first floor is empty save for a brilliant Maurice Sendak mural. An anticipated community day, that will mark the completion of the park and the library, is slated for early June.
Sen. Bob Casey told SPR, via a written statement because he got stuck in traffic on his way from Harrisburg, “I came to this city many years ago to teach young children for a year in North Philly. Then and today, those children are a reminder that every child is born with a light inside of them, and that it’s the abiding obligation of all of us to do all we can to help that light shine. This new health and literacy center will be at the forefront of helping vulnerable children in this community reach their full potential and get off to a strong, smart start to their lives.”
The 96,000-square foot LEED-certified building cost about $45.2 million, but the City had to kick in only a nominal $2.2 million towards construction (plus a small on-site lease cost). The rest came from CHOP, $30 million, the Free Library, $1.3 million, and the rest came from $9.8 million in New Markets Tax Credits. The CHOP Pediatric Primary Care Center is approximately 22,000 square feet and will service almost 35,000 patient visits per year. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health Community Center is a bit larger, 29,500 square feet and will see nearly 50,000 annual patient visits. The Free Library of Philadelphia South Philadelphia Library is the slightest of the three-floor space – the 12,000 square feet will service 150,000 customers annually.
Mayor Jim Kenney was on hand to welcome the new project’s near-completion on Monday and said “this is what our institutions should do. I’m from South Philadelphia and this is what the future is, co-locating the Free Library, Parks & Rec, CHOP and SEPTA.”
He commended the two South Philadelphia City Councilmen and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) and concluded saying this Health and Literacy Center would “get these kids the care and services they need to help drive down poverty and create educated, healthy taxpayers.”
By most accounts, the Perryman Construction-led CHOP project has gone according to hopes and plans.
“My observation and feeling is that it’s gone extremely well, and they’ve had a fabulous team out there, and they’re really nice,” Rebecca Zameska, a resident of the 1400 block of Castle Avenue and one of the morning’s speakers, said. “They’ve been extremely considerate and, on the whole, I’m really proud to call them my neighbors.”
Zameska, mother to six-year-old Lillyanna and four-year-old Georgie (the IV) and husband to George, happened to jumpstart a non-profit called Helpful Heroes as CHOP was breaking ground. It’s a “way to teach my children as well as involve other children in learning about charitable giving,” she said, and decided to run a book drive at her daughter’s school, Friends Select, where they collected 1,200 books to benefit the children of South Philly.
CHOP runs a Reach Out and Read program where it sends newborns to five-year-olds home with a new or lightly used book after an office visit. Helpful Heroes’ book drive at Friends Select will benefit Reach Out and Read, but she’s also spearheading a book drive from May 23-June 11 that will more directly benefit the library.
“We’re really looking forward to it coming back, it looks amazing,” Zamesha said. Her daughter used the old South Philly branch extensively before it was razed – “we knew the entire staff,” she said.
East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association co-chair Joseph F. Marino served on a neighborhood advisory council that met quarterly for the first two years, then monthly for the last two. It addressed concerns such as short-dumping, what to do in an emergency, vibration from construction and things like that. But one of his main goals was protecting the Wharton Esherick wood sculpture that flanked speakers at the CHOP podium Monday.
“That was in the children’s section of the Free Library my entire childhood,” he said. When they wanted to move it to the Central Library branch, the resident of the 1900 block of South Jessup Street said “over my dead body!”
Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, in his remarks, said he was “honored, privileged, and inspired” to be a part of this project and shared memories of his getting physicals and paperwork signed for sports, as well as taking his grandmother there before she passed. As a young Point Breeze native, he said Broad Street felt like Center City and his weekly trips to the library fed his growing mind.
“This community has helped me become the man I am today,” he said.
The president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Siobhan Reardon, shared comments that point to the excitement of having the first of five innovative library overhauls in the city right here in South Philly.
“In about a month, we’ll welcome people in the library. This is a transformational space, and it’s key that it’s in South Philly where a lot is happening,” she said.
She acknowledged the Sendak mural on loan from the Rosenbach Museum and shared excitement that disease prevention and education would come with “prescriptions of books and health-based programming.”
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117.
Representatives from the neighborhood advisory council watched on as Lillyanna and Georgie Zameska cut the ribbon in the first floor Free Library space, which will open to the public in June.
Staff Photos by Bill Chenevert