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Changing Skyline: A bumper crop of new parks sprouting in Philadelphia

Many people assume the nation's prolonged recession means that nothing much is getting built in Philadelphia. That's because they're looking up instead of looking down.

The café planned for Sister Cities Park, looking toward the Philadelphia skyline.  (Credit: DIGSAU & Studio | Bryan Hanes)
The café planned for Sister Cities Park, looking toward the Philadelphia skyline. (Credit: DIGSAU & Studio | Bryan Hanes)Read more

Many people assume the nation's prolonged recession means that nothing much is getting built in Philadelphia. That's because they're looking up instead of looking down.

Today, the real action is on the ground, and Philadelphia is enjoying a bumper crop of new parks. Since opening two weeks ago, the Race Street Pier, the scenester hangout on the Delaware, has monopolized most of the attention, but at least four more designer parks are set to open before the year is out. Several existing oases - from the hole-in-the-wall Chestnut Street Park to sprawling Hunting Park - also are in various states of refurbishment.

How is it possible that so many new and improved public spaces are in the pipeline when the keepers of the public treasury - the city and state - are pleading poverty? Or, for that matter, when Fairmount Park's operating budget has remained unchanged since the 1980s?

Actually, public funds cover only a small part of the cost of city parks nowadays. While Fairmount Park managed to secure some government money before the recession hit, and then topped off with federal stimulus dollars, few of the new parks would be seeing the light of day without heavy underwriting from philanthropic foundations, nonprofits, and private institutions. For better or worse, outside interests have become the lead player in planning and maintaining an entire generation of what we still like to call public parks.

Take the new Sister Cities Park, planned for the two-acre traffic island wedged between Logan Square's Swann Fountain and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. The Center City District came up with the idea of using the waste ground for a nature-themed children's park. It solicited grants to pay for the improvements and selected the architects to design it. While the city owns the site, the district will manage the park when it opens late this year, just as it manages the Cafe Cret park two blocks to the east on the Parkway.

Had the project been left entirely to the city, the park would probably have been designed like a tank, with durability given priority over delight. The district, which also is overseeing the reconstruction of Dilworth Plaza at City Hall, was able to bring a more ambitious vision to the undertaking. Designed by two up-and-coming Philadelphia firms, Studio Bryan Hanes and Digsau, the $4.6 million park has the potential to rival the Race Street Pier, which also owes its existence to foundations such as William Penn and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Because the city's two science museums and main library are located nearby, Sister Cities is geared to a younger crowd than the pier. The architects set the tone in the play area, which has been designed to simulate a glade in the city's Wissahickon Park, complete with a rocky hill, twisting path, and lush native plantings. As children make their way through the rising terrain, a spray of dewy mist will waft through the trees.

Don't worry - adults won't be forgotten. They get to relax in a serene and shady pavilion serving cafe fare that has been positioned to provide perfectly framed views of the Swann Fountain. At the park's south end, a large bluestone compass will be embedded in the ground and etched with lines pointing in the general direction of Philadelphia's 10 sister cities. With the city skyline rising in the background and jets of water shooting into the air, it seems destined to become a hot spot for wedding photos.

While Race Street celebrates Philadelphia's gritty maritime past, the designers of Sister Cities take their cues from Philadelphia's long infatuation with all things Parisian.

Hanes, the landscape architect, provides a bit of Parisian urbanity with a shallow basin outside the cafe where toy sailboats will be offered for sale or rent. Meanwhile, Digsau's design for the cafe makes a nod to the Wissahickon nature theme by using rough limestone bricks and a planted roof.

The 24-acre Penn Park, which will open this September at the University of Pennsylvania, is lavish in a different way. The $46 million project on the Schuylkill's west bank is being designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a well-known New York landscape architect, to provide the school with a smorgasbord of playing fields, tennis courts, and shady groves. But Penn is essentially providing the city with a major new sports facility, as it will be open to Philadelphians when not in use by the school.

The city is doing some greening of its own on the Schuylkill. The $2.9 million Grays Ferry Crescent will open this summer, with 11 acres of lawn and trees designed by Simone Collins. Organized by the Schuylkill River Development Corp., the park will be a continuation of its hugely popular Schuylkill Banks path once the city finishes the missing links between Locust Street and Grays Ferry Avenue.

It's not surprising that the park with the biggest city oversight also has the most modest budget. In March, the city broke ground at 12th and Catharine Streets for a small, $1.6 million neighborhood green called Hawthorne Park. Located on the former site of the notorious Martin Luther King housing project, the area was transformed over the last decade as the forbidding towers were replaced with affordable, traditionally styled rowhouses, and middle-class families returned.

Although the landscape architects, Lager Raabe Skafte, were instructed to design a low-maintenance space, they were able to divide the park into two parts: paved seating and open lawn. The formal area is raised slightly so the platform can double as a setting for movies and concerts.

So far, Philadelphia's nonprofits and foundations have been a powerful and positive force in encouraging the city to invest in new parks, which can refresh old neighborhoods. It's a big turnaround from the '70s and '80s, when the city practically wrote them off as a costly burden.

New parks are seen as an economic-development tool - one of the few that benefits people already living here. Now if only there were more money to make Philadelphia's old parks look as good.