Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly’s soda tax is supposed to ‘Rebuild’ parks and rec centers. It’s been a slow start.

Mayor Jim Kenney promised $500 million to fix up Philadelphia parks, recreation centers, and libraries. But the project’s budget and scope have shrunk, and City Councilmembers are frustrated by its slow pace.

Parents and children navigate temporary fences and support beams that are holding up the second floor of Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia. The facility is set to get a $14 million renovation as part of the city’s Rebuild program.
Parents and children navigate temporary fences and support beams that are holding up the second floor of Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia. The facility is set to get a $14 million renovation as part of the city’s Rebuild program.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Vare Recreation Center is open — but only with the help of six support beams holding its facade in place. The second story is closed, the lobby floor is sagging, and bricks have crumbled from exterior walls.

It is still a bustling hub of its South Philadelphia community, where balls bounce off the walls in a small but often-crowded gym, and parents crane their necks along a narrow hallway to catch a glimpse of the popular gymnastics lessons.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature achievement to tax soda and sweetened beverages brought hope for Vare and dozens of other dilapidated facilities around the city, with a promised transformative $500 million investment in parks, recreation centers, and libraries, funded largely by the new tax. Kenney used the program, called Rebuild, to help sell the beverage tax, pitching it as an innovative way to refresh facilities in the neediest neighborhoods.

But nearly four years after City Council passed the beverage tax, little construction work has begun.

As Kenney starts his second term, about two dozen projects — many of them smaller-scale items such as replacing roofing and sidewalks — are complete. Dozens more are underway. But the biggest promises, like a $14 million renovation of Vare, are in planning stages or have yet to launch.

Rebuild’s budget has shrunk, and so has its scope. When proposed, it was set to upgrade as many as 200 facilities. Just 72 are on Rebuild’s list now, and it’s unclear how many more will be added. There are no contracts for work at 10 of those sites — and contracts in place at many others are only for emergency repairs or relatively small improvements. Two of the six major projects Rebuild touts as complete were already partly planned before Rebuild existed.

The Kenney administration says Rebuild was stalled by litigation over the beverage tax, which lasted two years, and that it has moved faster since November 2018, when the first $86.5 million bond was issued. It’s typical for major projects to take years to complete, officials said, and Rebuild’s process can take even longer because it involves seeking community input, working with nonprofits, and meeting goals for workforce diversity.

» READ MORE: A timeline of Philadelphia's soda tax

While city councilmembers remain hopeful about Rebuild, several said they are frustrated with the pace — and skeptical of the administration’s ability to complete the ambitious program by the end of Kenney’s second term.

“It’s gotten a much slower start than we had thought,” Councilmember Cindy Bass said. “I think the expectation was that they would be a little further along."

There was also a shake-up in Rebuild’s leadership last fall, with the departure of executive director Nicole Westerman. Kira Strong, who had served as a deputy director, was appointed last month to replace Westerman.

» READ MORE: The head of the Philly soda-tax-funded Rebuild program resigns

Strong said she‘s looking forward to some of Rebuild’s major projects breaking ground this year.

“People will start to put their arms around ‘Oh, this is what you’ve been talking about for the last three years,’ ” she said.

Expectations meet reality

When proposed as a way to spend money raised by the beverage tax, Rebuild excited councilmembers who had long fought for funding to maintain facilities suffering from decades of deferred maintenance.

Before Rebuild, such projects were part of the capital budget, and could stall for years as the city juggled other priorities. Other upkeep was done through the Parks and Recreation Department and the Free Library. Councilmembers worked to find funding for emergency repairs and other upgrades.

Debate over Rebuild continued after the beverage tax took effect. Council authorized the program in 2017, and included specific diversity goals for contract participation and work hours. That legislation also created a new way to deliver major projects, managed through neighborhood nonprofit groups.

Expectations were high in 2018 when Council approved the first list of facilities for renovation.

But the project’s budget was adjusted after the beverage tax raised less money than projected. The tax, which also funds pre-K and community schools, has raised more than $200 million to date. In the current fiscal year, $12 million of that revenue will be spent on Rebuild and $46.8 million on schools, according to city projections.

Officials now expect Rebuild to spend about $425 million instead of $500 million, but that number isn’t final. The city is authorized to borrow $300 million in bonds for Rebuild, and has committed $48 million from its capital budget. The William Penn Foundation has committed to provide up to $100 million. Rebuild reduced its goal for outside fund-raising from $52 million to $25 million.

Since the first bond, Rebuild’s staff has grown from four people to 14.

“We all wish that … things were farther along than they are right now,” said David Gould, a Rebuild deputy director. “Some of that was outside of our control. … But I think we’ve done a really good job.”

The bond issuance requires the city to spend 85% of the $86.5 million by November 2021. But $9 million, or just 10.5%, had been spent through January. The rest of the money has been allocated for future spending, officials said.

“Knowing that we have some of these much larger projects going into construction," Strong said, “we feel good” that Rebuild is on track to spend the money.

Rebuild’s diversity component includes offering support for minority- and women-owned businesses, and a training program for workers interested in joining the building trade unions. Council set goals for percentages of contracts that should go to such businesses, and for the portion of work hours that should be completed by women and workers of color.

Rebuild is meeting or exceeding the goals for contracts initiated by Rebuild, but not for projects it inherited, with contracts signed outside of Rebuild’s purview. And while Rebuild is only 1% short of its overall goal of having 45% of work hours completed by women or people of color, it is not meeting goals in several specific categories.

“Those numbers have not been met and I’m a little displeased about that, but people continue to push the needle,” said Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

Strong said she’s optimistic that workforce diversity will continue to improve as more construction begins.

Small wins

Within Rebuild, the city has multiple methods for managing projects.

Many of them, especially the smaller endeavors, are managed as city projects or by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Roughly two dozen such items on Rebuild’s list have been completed, like installation or repairs of fencing, sidewalks, security cameras, and lighting. Those items often account for just one or a few of several upgrades planned for a facility.

Rebuild lists six “major” projects among those completed to date, including a new practice field at Parkside-Evans Field in Fairmount Park, which will be seeded and ready for use in the spring, and a new playground at Fishtown Recreation Center.

But both were already planned prior to the start of Rebuild.

The Parkside practice fields had been a city capital project that was delayed for lack of funding. The Fishtown playground, touted in July as Rebuild’s first ribbon-cutting, was only partially funded by Rebuild, which contributed $365,500 to the $1.1 million project. The project itself was not managed directly by Rebuild.

» READ MORE: New play area opens at Fishtown Rec Center — the first completed project tied to Rebuild initiative

Several other previously planned projects will also be part of Rebuild, as will at least one other to which Rebuild is simply contributing funding. Strong said those examples show Rebuild’s ability to use other resources to complete projects quickly.

Administration officials acknowledged that residents may have expected total reconstruction of facilities. The city is working to manage expectations, Strong told Rebuild’s advisory board last month.

Rebuild is “racing against a clock," said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., whose district includes the Parkside fields.

“They’re moving — that is a true statement,” he said. “When you deal with government, the functional phrase is slow and slower.' ”

Even with some of the smaller projects, timelines have slipped. On a list submitted to Council last March, 16 had estimated completion dates in 2019. Only about half of them are now complete.

Those estimates were adjusted for a number of reasons, said Maita Soukup, a Rebuild spokesperson, including the need for more community engagement and a longer-than-expected contracting phase. Some of them are merely awaiting landscaping work this spring.

Bigger projects slower to start

Rebuild has agreements in place with nonprofits to manage projects at 11 sites. Others aren’t finalized, and in some cases the city hasn’t started looking for a nonprofit partner or has failed to find one.

For example, Rebuild issued a grant application in 2018 for a $17 million renovation of Kingsessing Library and Recreation Center, but didn’t find a nonprofit to manage it. No planning or design work has begun. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who took office last month and whose West Philadelphia district includes Kingsessing, said residents are getting impatient.

“They’re ready for the work to happen,” she said. Referring to concerns about gun violence, she added: “It’s not just about capital improvements. It’s about having safe places to be at a time when our city is in turmoil.”

Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez, the only Democrat who voted against the beverage tax, said the negotiation process between nonprofits and the city took longer than she had hoped. That delayed projects in her district, like a $10.4 million renovation of Rivera Recreation Center and Mann Older Adult Center in Fairhill.

“In some cases we’re overthinking some of this stuff,” she said. “I know people want to check off the boxes and do a good job, but I’d like to see more money on the ground.”

Gould, the Rebuild deputy director, said the time spent negotiating contracts with nonprofits has shrunk.

“Once the work gets going, we feel like it’s going to be really effective and efficient,” he said.

Some councilmembers — especially close Kenney allies — defended Rebuild.

“The pace of Rebuild is to ensure that our public dollars are spent wisely, that our public dollars are going out to bid,” Councilmember Bobby Henon said. “You have that community engagement part of Rebuild that I think is essential.”

‘Hitting their stride’

As Rebuild works through projects on its initial list, the total number of sites that will be included remains unknown.

“People throughout the district are saying, ‘When are we up? When’s our turn coming?' ” Councilmember Cherelle Parker said of her Northwest Philadelphia district. “And we’re saying, ‘Listen we’re working, we’re getting this.’ ”

Legislation that would have added 10 additional sites died in Council last year.

“We’re being very conscious when we think about what additional sites come into Rebuild, what that looks like, and not wanting, of course, to overpromise,” Strong told the Rebuild advisory board last month.

Some councilmembers said they were sold on something bigger — and will keep pushing for that.

“We certainly have the full expectation that Rebuild will be what it was when it was promised and sold to the citizens of Philadelphia ... that there was going to be substantial investment in these neighborhoods," Bass said. “I do think it was a little bit bumpy at first, but now I feel that they’re hitting their stride.”

Even as the administration works to make Rebuild part of Kenney’s legacy, its future may be left to his successor. By 2024, when the next mayor takes office, officials acknowledge construction will likely still be underway.

Clarke, the Council president, said he hopes Rebuild can fulfill many of its promises in the next four years.

“We clearly need to be in a position to accelerate the pace,” he said. “But hopefully, at the end of the day when all this gets concluded, we’ll be proud and the citizens will be satisfied with the program that was put in place."