There was a time when Vare Recreation Center was one of the most attractive and active spots in the city.
Over time, the 3.6-acre site at 26th and Morris streets in Grays Ferry had fallen in despair. Plywood replacing broken windows, bricks falling off the building and cracks running through the basketball courts were just some of the problems facing the Vare Recreation Center, which was built in 1916.
More than 100 years later, the city has promised to make Vare an attractive site again, as a $20 million project is now underway through Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild Program. Kenney, along with Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, community members and city officials, gathered at the site on June 15 to celebrate and officially break ground on the project.
“Our kids, these kids, deserve this,” Kenney said. “They deserve quality, quality spaces.”
Rebuild is funded by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax and the William Penn Foundation, which has pledged an investment of $100 million toward city projects. The Vare project is being delivered by Rebuild’s Project User model and is led by nonprofit partner Make the World Better, founded by former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin.
“As someone who has been a part of a team my whole life and always will be, I’m so excited to be part of this team in South Philly,” Barwin said. “And together, we’re all going to build the best recreation center in Philadelphia in the next year.”
After the old recreation center is demolished, a brand new 18,700-square-foot facility will be built in its place. It will have a 7,000-square-foot indoor basketball gymnasium with bleachers, a 4,900-square-foot gymnastics gym with new athletic equipment, a 900-square-foot multipurpose room that can be converted into two classrooms and additional multipurpose space for community programming.
Outside, two new outdoor basketball courts will be constructed. There will also be a 1,500-square-foot outdoor classroom and a brand new synthetic turf field funded in part by the National Football League’s Grassroots program through LISC and the Philadelphia Eagles, which will be utilized by the South Philly Sharks youth football program.
There will be a new spray ground, a 6,000-square-foot playground, new exterior lighting as well as the planting of new trees and landscaping.
“We know that the coming improvements are long-awaited and will be so meaningful to the children of the families in this neighborhood,” Kenney said.
Johnson, who grew up at 18th and Dickinson, said he and his childhood friends would travel to different parts of the city to visit nicer playgrounds.
“As a young man, growing up, opposed to going to playgrounds in our neighborhood, we would get excited going to playgrounds outside our neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “25th and Pine, FDR Park, 11th and Lombard — those are the parks we would get excited to go to. But wouldn’t it be great to be excited to go to playgrounds within your very own neighborhood?”
Johnson also said playgrounds like Vare are badly needed to keep kids off the street.
“This project is violence prevention,” Johnson said. “Most of our young people don’t have the ability to go down the shore this summer. They don’t have the ability to go to Disney World this summer. But they will have the opportunity, in the future, to have a state-of-the-art recreation center and playground here at Vare Recreation Center.”
Brainstorming for the playground has been in the works, as community groups and city organizations have collaborated ideas to nail down what neighborhood families wanted to see at the playground. The project is slated for completion by the end of 2023.
“Over the last year, we have worked with our extraordinary partners at Make the World Better, so many at the Vare Advisory Council to really solidify the vision for what this facility needs to be for this community,” said Parks & Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “And I am thrilled to say that vision exists. It is real. The construction documents are ready, the contractor is coming and we will begin demolition and construction in the very near future.”