Wrestling with how to revitalize LOVE Park - and how to pay for it

Parks chief Mike DiBerardinis says Clarke's plan could eat up space and "significantly change" the park's use.
Parks chief Mike DiBerardinis says Clarke's plan could eat up space and "significantly change" the park's use.
Posted: December 26, 2013

Let the debate over the future of LOVE Park begin.

For Mike DiBerardinis, the head of Philadelphia's Department of Parks and Recreation, rehabilitating John F. Kennedy Plaza would be the finishing touch to transforming the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from "City Hall to Lloyd Hall," at the foot of Boathouse Row.

He imagines the plaza, more commonly known as LOVE Park, without the forbidding granite surfaces and access-limiting terraces and walls.

Instead, he and other Nutter administration officials envision a flatter, greener, more-welcoming space that would be worthy of its growing stature as "a national and international attraction."

"This isn't about do we do LOVE Park or not, but do we complete this seven-year revitalization program," DiBerardinis said. "This is very important to me that we complete this."

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke concedes that he initially saw LOVE Park less in terms of "aesthetics" and more in terms of money - he wanted to sell the city-owned garage beneath the park and, possibly, the entire plaza.

But he, too, now sees the chance to remake it into a civic space to rival other great urban parks.

"Whatever we do, we should maximize the opportunity to make this a very special space," Clarke said last week.

The questions are how much will it cost to give LOVE Park new life, and who is going to pay for it?

The Nutter administration has planned to spend $15 million on the park - "way too much," in Clarke's words. "We have so many more needs on our rec centers. I mean, I got a bridge on Montgomery Avenue that's ready to fall."

The Council president instead put forward the idea - he stresses that it's just "a concept" - to pay for the work by leasing space to seven restaurants.

"I think we're actually enhancing the park space by doing some level of restaurants," he said. "You're putting in these additional amenities."

DiBerardinis said Clarke's plan would eat up a third of the space and threaten "to significantly change" the park's use.

"You have deliveries, you have trash receptacles, you have exhaust fans," he said. "It takes the heart out of the park."

In addition, the administration maintains, concessions could never generate the kind of income necessary to rehab the park.

The city's estimate for renovating just the plaza - $135 per square foot - is higher than recent, less-complicated rehabs at Sister Cities Park on the parkway and Hawthorne Park in South Philadelphia.

But it is well below the $194-per-square-foot estimate for Dilworth Plaza, the other major Center City park now being overhauled.

"Is it in the ballpark for a high-quality redo? Yes," DiBerardinis said. "That would meet the standards that are around it? Yes."

Competing visions

Given that Clarke and the Nutter administration often disagree on how to handle some of the city's biggest challenges, it is perhaps unsurprising that they have competing visions for LOVE Park.

"The administration has a mind-set that what they propose is the way it's going to be. And I'm OK with that," Clarke said. "I explained to them I was going to look at some concepts."

In the meantime, a deal worth nearly $30 million to sell LOVE Park's dingy garage hangs in the balance, not to mention the look and usage of the park for future generations.

The deal to sell the garage to InterPark Holdings, of Chicago, has a 120-day window and would have to be approved by Council shortly after the members returned Jan. 23 from their winter break, said Budget Director Rebecca Rhynhart.

Under Nutter's plan, 2014 would be spent designing the new park and holding public meetings about it. The winning garage bidder would manage construction of the park.

(The new owner would have to tear up parts of the park, in any case, to fix the garage's leaking roof and make the structure handicap accessible.)

Clarke first floated the idea of selling the garage in a 2011 policy paper that included a slew of suggestions to raise revenue and pay down debt without hitting up the taxpayers.

He remains adamant that the spirit of that recommendation be honored - by not spending taxpayer money on fixing LOVE Park.

"We would net the entire revenue stream from the [garage's] sale, as opposed to selling it for $30 million and then plunking $15 million back" into the park, he said. "From my perspective, that doesn't make a lot of economic sense."

While taking issue with the number of restaurants in Clarke's initial concept, DiBerardinis said there absolutely would be concessions in the new LOVE Park, perhaps even an eatery in the visitor center. The city and its nonprofit partners now operate a number of park concessions and, DiBerardinis said, "we're getting good at this.

"All that money goes back into the care and maintenance of the parks," he said. "It's not like we're neophytes or we don't get it. We get it."

No doubt, Nutter and Clarke are not the only people who will want a say in how the park should look.

"We think a public process is really important here," said Bob Thomas, the Philadelphia Parks Alliance board president. "You hear ideas you wouldn't have otherwise thought about."

He noted that the questions Clarke and the administration were debating, such as how many cafes should be in the park, normally would be resolved in that process.

Thomas said he would even like to see the many lanes of traffic around the park "calmed" in some fashion. "There are certain aspects of LOVE Park," he said, "that really say 'traffic island.' "

Jeffrey L. Braff, president of the Center City Residents' Association, said that with green space at a premium, a plan to turn a third of LOVE Park over to restaurant space "would give us pause."

"It's an interesting idea," he said, "but our neighborhood plan would suggest not taking open space."

Phil Goldsmith, who was managing director under Mayor John F. Street, said LOVE Park was "obviously an important part of the city," but he was also sympathetic to Clarke's fiscal concerns.

"We want to make sure there aren't other parts of the city - and other parks - that are neglected," he said. "I haven't seen [Clarke's] design, but I don't think we need a food court in there either."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@troyjgraham

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