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A 33-acre wetland project at FDR Park will break ground soon

Transforming the space could invite fish, amphibians, and waterbirds

A view of a 33-acre wetland in FDR Park, on which the city is slated to break ground this month.
A view of a 33-acre wetland in FDR Park, on which the city is slated to break ground this month.Read morePhiladelphia Parks and Recreation

FDR Park, which was carved out of tidal marshes, has a problem: Huge swaths are chronically flooded. An effort to mitigate flooding, however, is on the horizon as the city plans to break ground this month on a 33-acre wetland project in the southwest section of the park.

“We wanted to create a park there, but mother nature wants it to remain a marsh in many ways,” said Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

Parks and Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy aim to restore some of the natural drainage in the park through the $30 million wetland effort funded by the Philadelphia International Airport. The project is a way for the airport to compensate for any wetlands and waterways affected by its air cargo facilities expansion.

The creation of the wetland kicks off the “nature phase” of a multiyear, $250 million plan to transform the 348-acre South Philly park designed in 1914 by the Olmsted Brothers — the landscape architectural firm with a legacy of prominent park systems.

To create the wetland, invasive growth, as well as decades of debris and other materials dumped in the area over time, will be excavated to create the low-lying conditions needed for the habitat. Then, 7,000 trees and 1,700 bushes and shrubs suitable will be planted.

WRT Design landscape architect Charles Neer said the wetland will not change how any outside water drains into the park. As the lowest point of the park, stewards say, the wetlands will be able to store excess storm water, which comes from the park as well as surrounding areas, like a sponge.

Maura McCarthy, the executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said the area designated for the wetland is “really not accessible to park users under any conditions” and by transforming the space, it will become an ideal habitat for fish, amphibians, and waterbirds.

“Humans aren’t losing anything, but the habitat has a lot to gain through this transition,” she said.

And bird watchers and nature lovers will be able to look into the new wetland using observation platforms and boardwalks.

Still, the wetland alone will not be enough to mitigate the wetter future that’s anticipated due to climate change, said project leaders. A malfunctioning tidal gate will be replaced with two new ones to protect the park’s creeks and lagoons from excess water flow.

The excavated soil will be set aside north of the wetland project in a temporary hill up to 30 feet high. Once stable, the hill will be planted with grasses and incorporated into an existing trail system until it’s needed for future projects, including plans to raise the park’s former golf course, which was closed in 2019 amid declining interest, above sea level.

The golf course’s makeover will feature picnic groves, courts for basketball and tennis, five sports fields, and four fields for baseball and softball to accommodate demand for these spaces for youth sports. The plans have received some pushback from residents who would rather it remain free natural space.

» READ MORE: Philly’s plan to build soccer fields and a driving range in FDR Park is sparking opposition

In addition to understanding the flooding issues, Parks and Rec sought resident feedback over 18 months in 13 languages.

Eleven more nature-focused projects are in the pipeline and expected to continue through 2026. The projects will ring in close to $45.5 million and will include a plant nursery, a nature playground, Shedbrook Creek restoration, and five-mile soft surface trail network across 100 acres of the park’s ecological core.

The plan to revamp the park kicked off in May as the city broke ground on a new welcome center.