Philadelphia youth sports teams face a shortage of safe, high-quality field space to practice and play games — and the city plans to change that by building a new football and track stadium.
But the new facility will go atop Edgely Ultimate Fields, a prized green space in West Fairmount Park, and the Ultimate Frisbee and cricket players who use it are asking, “Why here? Is there really nowhere else this can go?”
Edgely is a recreational oasis — a collection of 8 acres of lush grass fields that have been used and solely maintained by the Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance (PADA) and Prior Cricket Club for 36 years.
But the city says Edgely’s size and proximity to West Philadelphia — which has no game space — make it the best location for the project. It’s been a promise years in the making, and for children who have had to play on uneven, rocky lots with no bathrooms, it can’t come soon enough.
The project will be funded by Rebuild, Mayor Jim Kenney’s initiative that uses soda tax funds to refresh rundown recreational facilities in high-need neighborhoods.
PADA doesn’t believe building on high-quality fields is the best use of the land, and that it makes more sense for Rebuild to put the facility atop land that needs revitalization. They think the city should look to beautify more spaces, rather than build on top of a space they invested in beautifying themselves.
“We completely align with Rebuild’s mission and couldn’t agree more with it,” said Elena López, executive director of PADA. “But we feel that putting a stadium — AstroTurf — on these beautifully versatile, viable, well-maintained grass areas does not align with Rebuild’s mission.”
‘We basically play in dirt’
The Parkside Saints is a football, cheerleading, and mentorship league that serves over 200 kids ages 5 to 18 each year.
The Saints are one of at least a dozen teams in the city without appropriate game space, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Saints’ five football teams play games on a makeshift field off Belmont Avenue. Kids have been injured tripping in gopher holes. The field easily floods, the goalposts barely stay up, and coaches mark the sidelines themselves.
Rebuild built the Saints a practice field along Parkside Avenue in 2019, but the space is only big enough to fit one team, so most of the league practices behind Tustin Recreation Center in Overbrook. Coaches worry about jagged rocks hidden beneath overgrown grass. On a recent Monday, the rec center bathrooms were closed, forcing children to relieve themselves in the bushes or at a business across the street.
During the pandemic, some kids played in the suburbs, where the facility difference was stark.
“It was kind of eye opening for them. They had facilities, two fields, turf fields, tracks,” said Shawn Lewis, director of operations for the Saints. “And then our kids, we basically play in dirt.”
Of the city’s 277 athletic fields, only five are turf — which is durable and easier to maintain — and none are located west of the Schuylkill.
For three years, Rebuild and Parks and Rec have been looking for a large piece of public land in the West Fairmount area to serve the Saints and nearby public and charter schools. The stadium is in the early stages of planning and will likely take about two years to build, said Rebuild executive director Kira Strong. She said the total cost has not yet been determined, but Rebuild’s latest status report shows that just under $400,000 is budgeted for design and site assessment.
Rebuild considered places beyond Edgely, but none panned out. The former reservoir on North George’s Hill would have been too expensive to remediate, Strong said, and a portion of the Crossbow Mountain Biking Trail would have been impacted. Fields behind the Sweetbriar Mansion and Ohio House were too close to historic monuments in the Centennial District.
Using Edgely was a last resort, Ott Lovell said, but its proximity to West Philly teams, location on top of a floodplain, and size makes it their best option.
“The pros outweigh the cons because the existing user is not being displaced completely, they’re being told to share,” said Ott Lovell.
‘We want to share this field’
PADA, which has over 4,000 members, and Cricket have solely maintained Edgley for decades, pouring upward of $40,000 per year into the land. The result is a rare expanse of high-quality grass that draws in more than 100,000 visitors each year for days-long tournaments. PADA has built a community, too. On a recent Monday, players grilled out and watched competing games, as Taylor Swift played from a portable speaker.
“We want to share this field, but we want to make sure all fields [in the city] are usable like this one,” López said.
Ott Lovell said the city doesn’t have the budget to renovate fields beyond building the new facility. She said that the city is grateful for PADA’s maintenance and that they will preserve four of the seven existing ultimate fields. She also offered to waive the $10,000 per year field permitting fees and provide them with a new system of fields behind the nearby Sweetbriar Mansion. The cricket pit and historic house will not be impacted.
“I think the compromise we put out there was more than fair,” she said.
López said the new locations proposed by the city would be expensive to renovate up to Edgely’s standard, and cutting the space in half would disperse their community and make it difficult to run tournaments. Building on top of Edgely, she said, would not be a net gain of viable field space.
The city maintains that sharing the space is an equity issue.
“I respect them and I respect their tradition,” said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. of the 4th District. “But how many young, inner-city, at-risk kids you know went to school on a Frisbee scholarship?”
“These are the types of equity lenses people are looking for elected officials to fix. And people may think it’s not connected, but actually it is,” said Jones. “I think there is enough park for us to coexist; enough fields for us to enjoy each other.”
Ott Lovell said that the versatility of Ultimate Frisbee allows them to play almost anywhere.
“The majority of this sport is for adults, and in Parks and Rec, kids are always going to trump adults, and I should hope that all adults would understand that,” she said.
López said they do serve youth — six Philadelphia schools recently formed Ultimate teams, with three more joining next year.
“We also have youth, we also have youth of color in our organization,” she said. “This just goes back to the availability of field space. That is the root of the problem here, and we need to address that problem instead of covering just one field with another.”