Dozens of park enthusiasts from across Philadelphia and beyond gathered on the Great Lawn of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park early last Wednesday evening for the official unveiling of the 350-acre public space’s mammoth multi-year master plan.
For the past year, a network of organizations, including the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Friends of FDR Park and WRT Design, have engaged with a few thousand local residents to determine the future of the only Olmsted Brothers-designed park in the entire city.
Since March 2018, when the Fairmount Park Conservancy hired WRT, an architectural and city planning organization whose work has spread across the world, to develop a master plan, the diverse team of partners has been striving to revitalize the urban oasis while also retaining its history dating to 1914.
In honor of finalizing the scope of master plan details ranging from recreational to environmental revampings, the extensive undertaking, which is currently estimated at a capital cost of $200 million, the coalition of organizations hosted last week’s celebration to inform the South Philadelphia community on what to expect from FDR in the near to distant future.
“This is a park that goes back generations for families in South Philadelphia and beyond,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. “…We thought about how we could really pay special tribute to the history of this park but also begin to really envision what this park can be for the future. We live in a changing city. We live in a changing country, and there are elements of this park that should remain the same, and there are elements of this park that need to change.”
Since June 2018, the master plan team engaged with up to 3,000 community members speaking up to seven languages, according to the Fairmount Park Conservancy, through a range of outreach, including meetings at South Philadelphia High School, online surveys and canvassing throughout the park.
Based on research and data collected, the planning team boiled its mission down to three core points: reclaiming the vision of the park, restoring its function and renewing its impact.
In fostering these goals, the master plan intends to establish a balance of strategies among FDR Park’s central concerns, including nature, activities and water.
“This is the kind of project we exist to support, and really, we’re committed to help fully realize FDR Park as a really preeminent and outstanding public space,” said John Gattuso, board president of the Fairmount Park Conservancy. “There’s no reason why this park, when the renovation is completed, will not stand among really one of the most fantastic, exquisite parks anywhere in the region, frankly, anywhere in the country.
Aiming to address environmental, economic and social needs for the South Philadelphia public space, the master plan is essentially organized into two distinct zones. The first is the “Ecological Core,” which “manages water, connects parks users to nature and provides critical habitat.”
The other is the “Urban Edge,” which will include amenities such as state-of-the-art athletic fields and playgrounds.
“This has been a one-year community engagement process, and that’s critically important,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “Because at the end of the day, what you’ll see in this plan is a reflection of the requests of the community.”
Encompassed within the Ecological Core includes addressing concerns with the park’s critical ecosystem points, including waterways, wetlands and the marshlands that compose the public space.
Fundamentally, these renovations will work to address concerns surrounding the rise of sea levels in Philadelphia as a result of climate change over the next century.
These amendments include widening Shed Brook Creek within the park’s natural marsh, elevating the boardwalk along the FDR Park Boathouse and even partnering with Philadelphia International Airport to implement a wetland-mitigation project.
These wetland adjustments specifically include increasing aquatic habitats, removing invasive species and increasing useful trail and recreation space.
“As you see planes landing behind me, you don’t typically think about the airport when you think about environmental sustainability,” said Soledad Alfaro, chief administrative officer of the Philadelphia International Airport. “You think about lots of concrete and metal in the air, but fun fact about aviation is that – we do have a commitment to sustainability and the environment and being great neighbors.”
Using excavated soil from both the wetlands and the marsh, the proposed hill rises 36 feet above FDR Park, lending panoramic views of the park, the Philadelphia skyline and both the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.
While a colossal portion of the master plan aims to address sustainability and environmental, this key component is coupled with a vision to reactivate and re-energize the park as a hub for recreation, leisure and culture based on thousands of requests from the community.
“I like how they’re asking community input,” said Center City resident Timothy Carey, who often bikes around FDR Park. “They’re asking, ‘What would you like to see?’ And that’s really important, and it’s surprising – a lot of good things come out of that that the city planners didn’t think of.”
The Urban Edge zone, which can be raised out of the floodplain, will include athletic fields, such as basketball and tennis courts, and playgrounds all connected through a 5k multi-use trail. The route will be populated with picnic tables and refreshment vendors.
The new athletic spaces, which also includes 12 multi-sport, will be created through excavated soil from the wetlands. Along with repaved streets for vehicles, the Franklin 5k multi-use trail will be oriented toward walkers, runners and cyclists.
Along the proposed gateway, which will feature a new pedestrian plaza on the corner of Broad and Pattison, FDR Park’s historic Guardhouse is intended to be renovated as a welcome center.
“I think if they can hire staff people to take care of the trees and the trails, that would be fabulous,” said Lower Moyamensing resident Eve Miller, who often frequents the park. “Also, the welcome center sounds like a great idea and the fact that they’re doing the wetlands to contain the flooding, I think, is great.”
The implementation of the master plan is considered “flexible and functional.”
According to Parks and Recreation, funds are already being allocated to repave the park’s roads and restore the roof of the Guardhouse.
Looking ahead, the Fairmount Park Conservancy intends to collect funding from local, state and federal agencies, which will be coupled with contributions from philanthropic and corporate entities.
“When I think about the Friends, and just listening to Kathryn (Ott Lovell) talk about all of what happened here, the word that just keeps playing through my head and my mind is ‘team,’ ” said Todd Pride, president of the Friends of FDR Park. “As we walk away from the day, I’d like everybody to really think about the team effort of what this is, of what this took to get here and the team effort it’s going to take to move forward.”
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