Clarke's Parchipelago: Multi-cafe idea for LOVE Park would require land exchange

Posted: January 07, 2014

A PROPOSAL BY City Council President Darrell Clarke for LOVE Park has some folks in city government scratching their heads.

Some experts say the idea to erect seven restaurants in JFK Plaza - a/k/a LOVE Park - would likely trigger ordinances at the local, state and federal levels designed to protect city-owned parkland.

In November, Clarke commissioned the Philadelphia-based Daroff Design Inc. to draw up sketches of what LOVE Park might look like with eateries, kiosks and a bandstand along the perimeter.

Admitting that the concept is only in its infancy, Clarke claims that revenues generated from leasing roughly 26,000 square feet of the 2.4-acre space would help pay for much-needed capital improvements to the park.

Critics of the proposal agree that revenue-generating is necessary for the city to pay its bills, but not by way of building up what's intended to be open space, something already lacking in Center City.

Mike DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for environmental and community resources and commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that a 2011 parkland-protection ordinance could hamper the Daroff proposal because the city would be leasing off nearly one-third of the land in LOVE Park to commercial interests. The ordinance requires that a developer of city-owned parkland replace it with a parcel of equal or greater value elsewhere in the city. That would have to be enforced in this case, DiBerardinis said.

"The idea of generating revenue we can both agree on - but how much is the question," he said.

A study conducted by the Parks and Recreation Department determined that the food-vendor idea would not generate enough money to pay for the park renovations, DiBerardinis said.

"Our experience is that other concessions in the park indicate that although we could generate revenue to maintain the park, the idea of paying off a multimillion-dollar investment just doesn't seem possible," he said.

Instances of parkland sales/lease-backs in recent years served as the impetus for the parkland-protection ordinance, which Clarke co-authored.

City parkland was used to construct Microsoft's School of the Future in West Philadelphia, which the school district leases from the Fairmount Park Commission on a renewing 40-year contract. Parcels of parkland also were used in Sister Cities Park near Logan Circle. The proposal for the Fox Chase Cancer Center expansion was defeated by a state court when it threatened to encroach on 20 acres of Burholme Park. Experts say cases like these were the genesis of the open-land ordinance.

Nutter's $15M pledge

DiBerardinis and the Nutter administration envision a greener, more pedestrian-friendly landscape for LOVE Park, and the mayor has pledged $15 million to see it through. Yet some top city officials don't foresee the restaurant concessions generating the kind of revenue to make the necessary park improvements.

Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of parks and facilities for the Parks and Recreation Department, said he has already received an emailed warning from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

"It reminded us that if this proposal were to advance, the state would want to review it - that this is already on their radar screen," he said.

Built in 1964, LOVE Park was to function as an introduction to Fairmount Park and to cap the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway - establishing a tension along the diagonal axis between the art museum and City Hall.

According to Focht, in the 1970s the city received money through the National Park Service's Land and Water Conservation Fund to pay for renovations to the Parkway.

"If we were to change the nature of LOVE Park by introducing cafes . . . we may be subject to federal review, and if the federal government determines you're not compliant - that you've changed the use of the land - they require you pay the money back," Focht said.

'All about revenue'

Clarke said that his proposal would simply involve interpretation of Daroff's "concept" and of the law.

"I'm actually happy that the concept has stimulated so much discussion. This proposal, from Day One, was all about raising revenue," Clarke said.

"If you're talking about by virtue of putting an activity on the park, such as restaurants, then your interpretation is that that's eliminating the park, and then it would clearly require replacement of that [land]. But from our perspective, we're not eliminating the park; we're actually enhancing it."

In one configuration of the Daroff drawings, young trees flank the east, west and south sides of LOVE Park.

The administration is trying to close a deal with InterPark, which offered the highest bid of $29.6 million to buy the aging parking garage beneath the park.

Nutter is pushing for the sale, noting that InterPark's offer is almost $10 million more than anticipated and would include conditions that the company would manage the park enhancements.

"It's an asset sale," Clarke said of the garage deal.

"And as part of the asset sale, I thought it would be appropriate to take advantage of an opportunity to design the surface of the park garage, or LOVE Park, in a way that would minimize the need for taxpayer dollars," Clarke said. "That's why we tried to incorporate some level of retail revenue streams to pay for that surface. The $15 million number always troubled me."

By comparison, renovating Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall is estimated to cost $21.5 million. Clarke said he and his staff plan to meet with all stakeholders involved in LOVE Park.

He said opportunities exist to convert vacant, unused land throughout the city into parkland.


On Twitter: @RuffTuffDH

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