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By turning Fairmount Water Works into a party space, Philly exemplifies the worst of park privatization

What's the point of monetizing a public space if the public can no longer use it?

Once a lovely place for a stroll, the iconic Fairmount Water Works has been clunked up with a greenhouse, covered arcade, and other facilities to support private events.
Once a lovely place for a stroll, the iconic Fairmount Water Works has been clunked up with a greenhouse, covered arcade, and other facilities to support private events.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

When PBS put together a series a few years ago called Ten Parks That Changed America, the Fairmount Water Works clocked in at number two. It should have gotten the top slot. The Water Works is best known as an engineering marvel that taught American cities how to distribute clean drinking water on a big scale. But the charming group of miniature Greek temples is also the place where our ideas about democratic access to green space coalesced. Designed to do double duty as a park, the Water Works made its shady walking paths free and open to the public. Today, no view of Philadelphia is more iconic.

Most cities would revere such a lovely and historic site, keeping it well-maintained and accessible. In Philadelphia, we treat it as just another asset to be monetized.

Since its completion in 1815, generations of Philadelphians have gone to the Water Works to stroll, picnic, fish, or just watch the rushing waters cascade over the Schuylkill dam. But those who visit today may feel hesitant about approaching the famous row of cream-white pavilions. With the blessing of the Department of Parks & Recreation, a private banquet company was allowed last fall to add extra structures throughout the complex.

Installed during a pandemic, when city residents were desperately seeking outdoor space, these structures have entirely changed the character of the Water Works. The beloved ensemble has been clunked up with an enormous greenhouse, a long, metal-roofed arcade, and a variety of kitchen facilities. The arcade functions almost as a fence. It stretches the length of the site, obscuring views of the Water Works’ historic architecture. On the open deck at the north end, where children used to fly kites, a plastic-glass party room looms over the smaller pavilions. Although the public is permitted to wander through the pavilions and visit the Water Department’s museum when there are no private events, the presence of these structures can’t help but make visitors question whether they still have a right to use the complex.

A Faustian bargain

What’s going on at the Water Works represents the most extreme example of the Faustian bargain Philadelphia made two decades ago when it began actively privatizing its public spaces. Because the city was unable — or, more accurate, unwilling — to fund its parks properly, it began outsourcing choice locations to nonprofit operators. It’s the reason that Dilworth Park, Franklin Square, and parts of Cobbs Creek all have private managers today. Those operators are expected to maintain the grounds and provide public amenities. But since managing a park is expensive, they were given carte blanche to close their parks for moneymaking events.

The problem with this model, as I’ve written in the past, is that the closures occur far too often, and the public has too little say in the decision-making. But I’ll grant the private manager at Dilworth and Franklin Square this much: They’ve used the revenue from all those fund-raisers to transform previously unloved parks into great spaces that all Philadelphians can enjoy.

At the Water Works, there have been improvements, too. But the new structures benefit only the concessionaire, Cescaphe, a large, Philadelphia-based events company.

The few parts of the Water Works that have not been subsumed into Cescaphe’s party spaces are noticeably shabby. The cracked balustrade around the gazebo needs a paint job. The steps leading from the gazebo to the river are still covered in a huge mound of silt that was deposited there last September by Hurricane Ida. The city receives $197,000 a year in rent from Cescaphe, and the entire sum is dedicated to maintaining the Water Works, according to Maita Soukup, the communications director for Parks & Rec.

Park concessions aren’t a new thing, and the Water Works has a long history of hosting them. As early as 1843, the city allowed a saloon to operate inside the Engine House, the large building at the south end of the complex. By then the Water Works had become an international tourist destination, attracting the likes of Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope. After the city decommissioned the Water Works in 1911, it was used as an aquarium and public swimming pool. In the early 2000s, after a group of philanthropists raised $24 million to renovate the buildings and grounds, the Engine House was once again leased to a restaurateur, Michael Karloutsos. Although he sometimes used the open-air pavilion for banquets, the Water Works remained free of intrusive structures. That arrangement seemed like a fair trade-off.

Then Karloutsos ran into legal trouble. In 2015, the Nutter administration brought in Cescaphe as the concessionaire. It also issued a new contract that allowed Cescaphe’s owner, Joe Volpe, to install a variety of temporary structures at the Water Works, and leave them in place for 180 days a year. Volpe didn’t exercise the option until the pandemic hit. In early 2021, both Parks & Rec and the Department of Licenses & Inspections signed off on the design.

Damage control?

It’s hard to exaggerate the scale of the structures, or how much they overwhelm the diminutive temples perched over the Schuylkill. Paul Steinke, who runs the nonprofit Preservation Alliance and also serves as treasurer for the Fund for the Water Works, said he was taken aback when he first saw the additions late last year. Yet the Historical Commission was never consulted on the design, its director, Jon Farnham, told me. This is astounding given the Water Works’ stature. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976, putting it in an elite class that includes Independence Hall.

In an interview, Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and concessions director Bob Allen vigorously defended the arrangement with Cescaphe. Lovell noted the arcade and party room were “temporary.” What “temporary” means is that the structures will come down in November, and then be reinstalled in April 2023.

“I think it’s a very lovely structure,” Lovell told me. She also insisted that the banquet operation had made the Water Works more accessible to the public than it was before Cescaphe took over. “It’s attracting more people while generating revenue.”

The day after my interview with Lovell, her communications director sent me an email update saying the plastic-glass party room would not be reinstalled in the spring. Instead, it would be replaced with a tent, Soukup wrote.

Assuming the tent is constructed from opaque fabric, that hardly sounds like an improvement over plastic glass. It may even make things worse. Soukup said she did not know whether the massive arcade, which blocks views of the Water Works buildings, would remain in place. I reached out to Volpe in an effort to learn more, but he did not return my emails or phone calls.

Replacing the party room with a tent sounds more like damage control than a meaningful gesture. Something similar happened in 2016. Historic Philadelphia, the group that manages Franklin Square, was severely criticized for surrounding that park with a high, opaque fence during the six-week Chinese Lantern Festival. Lovell responded by announcing that the barrier would be replaced with see-through material. It was — for a while. If you stop by the square today, you’ll see a mix of fencing, both opaque and transparent. You’ll also see a Cescaphe banquet tent that occupies the northeast quadrant of Franklin Square during the warmer months.

The price of privatizing

Philadelphia’s increasing reliance on private managers is one reason the Trust for Public Land demoted the park system in this year’s national rankings, from 19th place to 32nd. Nearly 30% of Philadelphia park spending comes from private sources, more than any other city. At the same time, Philadelphia spends just $50 per capita of its own tax money on parks. That’s less than half of what Baltimore allocates from its public coffers. When those numbers are factored in, Philadelphia’s park system actually ranks 85th nationally, said the Trust’s Bill Lee.

Because Philadelphia’s parks have been starved of funding for so long, Lovell argues that her department is forced to raise revenue by leasing attractions such as the Water Works to private operators. But those deals only let elected officials off the hook.

Even as cities across America were increasing parks spending in response to the pandemic, Mayor Jim Kenney initially sought to trim Philadelphia’s parks budget. (Never mind that park usage is up 50% over last year, according to Lovell.) Only City Council’s last-minute intervention stanched the bleeding. Council ended up increasing the 2023 parks budget from $65 million to $73 million.

That won’t help the Water Works. Stuart Shils, a well-known Philadelphia painter who teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was stunned when he took his students there recently for an annual “plein air painting” session. The Water Works has been a popular subject for artists since it opened, and its image can be found on everything from engravings to 19th-century dinner plates. But when he arrived, he told me, “it was like seeing the desecration of the temple from biblical days.”

The irony is that the Water Works came into being as a result of a pandemic. After the 1793 yellow fever crisis decimated Philadelphia’s population, officials allocated public dollars to build a new water system that would benefit city residents. Two centuries on, the city responded during a pandemic by turning the Water Works into a party space that benefits a private business.

News researcher Ryan Briggs contributed to this column.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece misstated the name of Historic Philadelphia, which manages Franklin Square.