Changing Skyline: Fairmount Park plan is welcome, but it falls short

Joggers run on the Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park with cloudy Center City Philadelphia in the background on Tuesday, September 18, 2012. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Joggers run on the Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park with cloudy Center City Philadelphia in the background on Tuesday, September 18, 2012. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer ) (Daily News/Inquirer)
Posted: May 14, 2014

Fairmount Park is to Philadelphia what Central Park is to New York City, yet it has never managed to become the same kind of go-to, citywide leisure destination. While the Schuylkill's banks are often jammed with people, the crowds quickly thin as you push into the hinterlands, the big swaths of greenery known to park officials (but few others) as East and West Fairmount Park.

Unlike Central Park, the bifurcated park bordering the Schuylkill between the Art Museum and the Falls Bridge is not all that convenient to most Philadelphians. The city's densest rowhouse neighborhoods lie far to the east, near the Delaware, and in South Philadelphia. Public transit access is poor. Even people living next to the park find the fragmented archipelago of niche spaces tricky to navigate.

Hoping to clear a path through the confusion and refashion Fairmount Park as more of a people's park, the Department of Parks and Recreation will release a master plan Tuesday for its signature green space, at 5:30 p.m. at the Smith Memorial Playground. The main goal is to improve connections through the wooded areas, down to the river. Some solutions are as basic (and obvious) as adding a traffic light on Kelly Drive so Strawberry Mansion residents can cross safely.

The plan contains dozens of micro-recommendations in the same vein, and I suspect that few will grab the public's imagination. "Provide incomparable views" is one of the stranger ones.

Several bolder ideas - opening a public boathouse and building a pedestrian bridge - have also been thrown in, but my hunch is that none will see the light of day.

Still, the report is important as a demonstration of the Nutter administration's commitment to democratizing the city park system by improving access. This is the third major strategic plan produced in the last six years, thanks to funding from the William Penn Foundation. Like last year's plan for the Parkway, this one was overseen by Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, head of Parks and Recreation, and the nonprofit consultant PennPraxis.

If the Parkway plan was a hodgepodge of small-bore ideas, it did produce last summer's immensely popular beer garden at Eakins Oval, which will be reprised this year. The fruits of the Fairmount plan are likely to be similarly modest, especially given that this administration has just 18 months left.

These plans are useful mainly for establishing priorities, so the parks department can decide how best to allocate its energy and money. Even if the next mayoral administration does not have a keen interest in parks, the department can keep chugging along, pushing the worthy goal of increasing patronage of one of America's great urban parks.

At the same time, the lack of ambition is frustrating. The master plan grew out of last year's controversy over Temple University's decision to build a new boathouse on a lush site under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Although Temple eventually agreed to reuse the existing Canoe House, the city came under fire for being too quick to sell a prime piece of public land, and for lacking a plan to guide new construction in the park.

For all the virtues of the plan, it barely addresses that issue. The city has misused its precious land on Boathouse Row for decades. There is no evidence that it will respond more responsibly next time a powerful private entity wants a chunk.

The plan does endorse one big idea: creation of a public boathouse as an anchor for a new Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill's west bank. Right now, you have to attend a private school or pay a hefty membership to row on the river. Nothing would do more to democratize the park than a boathouse accessible to the masses. But endorsing an idea is not the same as making it a reality, so the proposal comes across as a token gesture.

Meanwhile, the plan overlooks the need for a facility that allows non-rowers to rent canoes, rowboats, and sailboats. In recent years, the rowing community has essentially annexed the Schuylkill as its private waterway. The community's hegemony was confirmed by the parks department's recent decision to allow a private donor to paint a rowing mural on a park bridge. The plan offers no guidance for handling future requests.

The other issue is funding. At one point, the plan suggests the city could realize more revenue from big events. A paragraph later, it urges the city to cut back on such events.

It's a shame the report did not have the courage to explore the possibility of a regional park tax, which many cities implement when parks are heavily used by suburbanites. It wouldn't be an easy conversation, but why not start it?

Looking at the funding comparisons in the report, you can't help but be struck by how little Fairmount Park collects in private donations - a mere $485,000 in 2010, compared with the $5 million raised in 2012 for St. Louis' big city green space, Forest Park.

As the plan rightly points out, there are many small improvements that would enable better access to Fairmount Park. But nothing would help like an extra few million bucks a year.


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

www.inquirer.com/built

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