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Why some Philadelphia neighborhoods are paying for their own park improvements | Inga Saffron

Although the sugary-drinks tax is generating more money for parks, Philadelphia neighborhoods are turning to private fund-raising to pay for new park furniture and special amenities.

Northern Liberty Neighborhood Association created a small park behind its community center at Third and Fairmount. The space was designed by Kieran Timberlake architects and Studio Bryan Hanes, a landscape architecture firm.
Northern Liberty Neighborhood Association created a small park behind its community center at Third and Fairmount. The space was designed by Kieran Timberlake architects and Studio Bryan Hanes, a landscape architecture firm.Read moreKieran Timberlake

A local park functions like a common room for the neighborhood. And like a room, it needs furniture.

That used to mean arranging a few benches around the perimeter. But as more Philadelphia neighborhoods reassert themselves after years of neglect, their ambitions for their parks are growing.

They want sheds to store equipment, pergolas and canopies for shade, maybe a signature element to make their park stand out from the pack. And, increasingly, Philadelphia civic associations and parks groups are willing to go out and raise big bucks to pay for those amenities.

One of the most impressive of the new grassroots projects is the Yard at Third and Fairmount in Northern Liberties. Once a gravelly lot next to the neighborhood’s community center, it is now a cozy gathering place that wraps around the building. There are a variety of places to sit, including benches, garden walls, and cafe chairs. But the prize feature is the glowing gold wedge that floats over the park like a stealth plane zooming in for a landing. It’s a canopy, designed to provide shade for park activities, which range from plant sales to a summer arts camp.

The creation of the Yard is a textbook example of how to give form to a diffuse space — and how to pay for it. The Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association marshaled a small army of volunteers and pro bono professionals for the project. Two of Philadelphia’s best-known architecture firms, Kieran Timberlake (Dilworth Park) and Studio Bryan Hanes (the Rail Park), donated their services, from design to construction management. Local artisans contributed signature pieces. Residents acted as volunteer contractors. Even the legal and engineering work was done for free.

While the neighborhood group’s outlay for the project was still a hefty $185,000, the total cost of labor and materials was probably closer to $300,000, said its treasurer, Stephen Richman. The bulk of the funding came from the Penn Treaty Special Services District, an agency created to manage SugarHouse Casino’s mandated contributions to neighborhood upkeep.

The neighborhood association had inherited the lot from the city more than a decade ago, after it took over the abandoned house on the corner to use as a community center. Since Northern Liberties was already home to a lush green park, Liberty Lands on Third Street, the group decided to use the grant to convert the lot into an events space.

Kieran Timberlake, which moved to Northern Liberties in 2015, offered the services of two of its architects, Jason E. Smith and Lea Litvin, to flesh out the plan. They not only sketched the early designs, they also helped manage a community-engagement process and lined up other professionals.

Smith and Litvin envisioned the 4,000-square-foot, L-shaped site as a cut-through, or bridge, between Fairmount Avenue and Third Street. Off-the-shelf steel mesh and cedar slats were used as fencing, to reflect Northern Liberties’ industrial heritage. All the plantings were pushed to the edges to keep the interior open and flexible.

As a way of making the large space feel more intimate, the architects broke it down into discreet zones. Studio Bryan Hanes installed small, paved plazas at both entrances. They act like a welcome mat and double as driveways for delivery trucks.

The entrance path on Third Street was angled to direct your eye to the nearby steeple of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church. That design move set up the geometry for the canopy roof. Standing below the structure, you might think the roof was flat. But it also angles up toward the steeple. The folds were shaped to manage rainwater, which flows into scuppers that then drain into the planters. The underside of the canopy is covered in anodized stainless-steel shingles. Because the shingles reflects the colors below, the effect is like an upside-down impressionist painting.

The best part is that the canopy is functional. Besides providing shade during events, it acts as a natural gathering place. The neighborhood association hopes to offset some of its costs by renting out the space for occasional weddings and parties.

Litvin, who left Kieran Timberlake to form her own firm with her husband, Evan Litvin, is now working on a variation of the Yard’s canopy for Fitler Square. The square, at 23rd and Pine, is a more traditional park, shaded by tall trees and bordered by a wrought-iron fence. It serves as the neighborhood commons, hosting Easter egg hunts, Christmas and Hanukkah lightings, and other community bonding events.

Litvin believes Fitler Square’s current look is the work of Norman Rice, an important modernist architect whose office was across the street. The design, which was implemented in 1953, transformed a concrete expanse into one of the city’s most perfect neighborhood parks. Pedestrians flow in effortlessly from the corners, past colorful flower beds, into a space that feels like a true respite from the world. A central fountain and several animal sculptures add to the charm.

But during a ferocious storm last spring, a large tree fell on the park’s toolshed, crushing the tiny brick building. Fortunately, the Fitler Square Improvement Association, the park’s friends’ group, had some money in the bank, from a bequest and grants. Since the association had always wanted a structure where people could coalesce during events, they asked the Litvins, who operate as LO Design, to come up with a new shed design that included a social component.

After studying several locations and arrangements, they recommended splitting the addition into two parts: a new shed and a freestanding canopy. They placed the two elements on either side of the park’s central axis, so the pieces frame the circular fountain. As a contrast to the park’s redbrick paving, the structure would be faced in warm limestone bricks and blackened wood slats, waterproofed using a Japanese method called Shou sugi ban.

The arrangement solves several problems. It eliminates the wasted ground between the shed and fence, which is a dumping ground for trash, while providing the park with a larger, more attractive shed. The canopy offers a nice horizontal contrast to the shed’s vertical slats.

But the 30-foot-long canopy does appear a bit large for the space. Unlike the Yard, this little park has a variety of existing elements — the fountain, sculptures, large trees — where people congregate.

The current proposal will go on display at the park’s spring fair, May 9 and 10, so residents can still weigh in. The design must be approved by the Art Commission.

Like Northern Liberties, Fitler Square expects to fund the project with donations, grants, and in-kind labor. The cost could exceed $100,000, said Amy Riley, the improvement association’s vice president.

Although the city has a new pot of money from the sugary-drinks tax to help fund park work, there is still a huge backlog of need, said Aparna Palantino, a deputy commissioner in the Department of Parks and Recreation. “As a department, we don’t have the resources” to pay for upgrades like those being planned in Fitler Square. The department, which is enthusiastic about the new structures, has instead supported Fitler Square with technical help.

Palantino noted that the number of parks with friends’ groups has increased significantly in the last few years. So has the number of volunteers helping to keep them tidy. But cleanup days are just the beginning. If city neighborhoods want nice new things in their parks, it seems clear they’re going to have to learn to do fund-raising, too.