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The redesign of FDR Park is the kind of planning Philly should get behind | Editorial

While some might mourn planned changes at the park, the city’s plan is an example of the hard but necessary choices that come with governing and should proceed.

A conceptual illustration of a 33-acre wetland planned for FDR Park in South Philadelphia.
A conceptual illustration of a 33-acre wetland planned for FDR Park in South Philadelphia.Read morePhiladelphia Parks and Recreation

If you’ve been in South Philadelphia recently, you’ve probably seen signs urging the city to “Save the Meadows.” The signs encourage residents to align themselves with the birds, bees, and butterflies in a fight against excavators, dump trucks, and the international soccer association, FIFA.

Upon closer inspection, however, the city’s plan to redesign the area is a classic example of the hard but necessary choices that come with governing and should proceed.

At stake are 150 acres of land in South Philadelphia, which until 2019 were utilized as a public golf course. Unlike the rest of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, which was designed by the Olmsted Brothers in 1913 as “League Island Park,” the golf course was a more recent addition. For decades, the course went mostly unappreciated — city officials told this board that the course never made a profit.

During the period between the course’s closure and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, nature began to reign unchecked again in the park. The manicured golf lawns became a thing of the past, and the area became a popular destination for nature lovers looking for the South Philadelphia equivalent of Northwest Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley.

» READ MORE: FDR Park Plan could level the playing field in Philly’s youth soccer | Opinion

For many parkgoers, the city’s plan (which predated the pandemic) to transform the area into a 33-acre wetland and install performance-grade turf athletic fields along the outskirts of the park was a disappointment.

It is certainly easy to empathize with the desire to escape the overwhelming concrete, noise, and traffic of South Philadelphia for what seems like a natural wonderland. Yet mixed in with the legitimate sense of loss for a precious community resource — and reasonable environmental concerns about the project’s link to a planned expansion at the Philadelphia International Airport — are complaints with no basis in fact.

For example, some critics have claimed that the Meadows are being torn down for a World Cup stadium. This is untrue. Philadelphia’s World Cup games will be held at Lincoln Financial Field. Others have alleged that FIFA has paid off city officials in order to secure nearby practice space. While corruption and FIFA are a frequent combination, these critics have the direction of payment wrong. Government officials bribe FIFA executives, not the other way around.

The fields are an answered prayer for many neighborhood sports leagues.

Far from being the unnecessary imposition that opponents claim they are, the fields are an answered prayer for many neighborhood sports leagues, some of whom have to travel to the suburbs or across the city in order to find field space today. Teams like the Marian Anderson Monarchs say that the fields would make youth sports more accessible. Choosing turf over natural grass may disappoint some environmentalists, who cite the inevitable plastic runoff, but it also ensures that the fields will be usable in the long-term with little upkeep, something the city isn’t always able to guarantee with grass fields, which require significant maintenance.

While the Meadows may feel like nature reclaiming a piece of tamed landscape, it, too, is a product of man-made intervention. Before the city turned the land into a golf course, this area of South Philadelphia was part of sprawling wetlands often referred to as “The Neck” and was home to marshes, pig farmers, and even seasonal hunting. Accounts from the 19th century attest to the region’s value to local children, who swam, went fishing, and rode boats around the “Ma’sh” on their days off from school. It is only because of an aging tide gate — which has kept the waters of the Delaware Estuary from flooding the park — that the Meadows have managed to persist.

The city’s plan accomplishes two important goals — it ensures space for parkgoers to once again experience the joys of the wetlands, while also making organized sports more accessible. We should all look forward to its completion.