The lush, sinuous banks of the Schuylkill between Boathouse Row and the Falls Bridge are one of Philadelphia's glory spots, the landscape equivalent of a great architectural ensemble. It's a treasure that deserves kid-glove care, and yet over the last two decades, the precious parkland has been a victim of almost serial abuse. Historic boathouses have been left to crumble. Second-rate newcomers have been plopped onto the scenic riverfront as casually as fast-food joints on a highway strip.
Philadelphia is now contemplating another momentous addition to this part of Fairmount Park: Temple University wants to erect a large, new boathouse on Kelly Drive, under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. And once again, the city is rushing to make a decision with too little information.
The discussion accelerated last week with a hearing before the Fairmount Park Commission, which must submit its recommendation to City Council by March 9. The debate focused almost exclusively on whether Temple should compensate the city for the lost parkland by acquiring an equivalent piece of land elsewhere in the city, as required by a freshly minted Council ordinance.
It's hard to believe this is even an issue, but then following its own laws doesn't always come naturally to Council. While the answer appears obvious, the question is premature. For too long, the city has been guiding this important landscape in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion, without a master plan for siting new boathouses and other structures.
Temple's preferred site, which would occupy a half-acre picnic grove, may well be a fine place for a new boathouse, but there is no way to evaluate it in the current vacuum of information. At least one other rowing group is currently scouring the riverfront for real estate, and there are sure to be more over the next few years.
How will the new kids on the river affect everyone else? Is the east bank too congested? Should the city start a "Boathouse Row West"? Can some rowing activity be moved below the dam, to Locust Street or Bartram's Garden? What about reintroducing sailing and canoeing on the river?
Rowing, which is enjoying a huge surge in popularity, doesn't just affect what happens on the water. The high-profile national regattas draw thousands of people to the Schuylkill. While their presence benefits the city's economy, the crowds increase pressure on the fragile riverfront landscape. On fine days, the recreation trails are packed and it can be hard to find a quiet spot to fish or read a book. As more boathouses are built, the public loses access to the river's edge.
All these concerns have no doubt been explored over drinks in the venerable Victorian rooms of Boathouse Row, but they haven't been part of the official review of Temple's proposal. A public discussion is long overdue.
Despite the lack of information, last week's commission hearing began with a representative of the district councilman, Curtis Jones Jr., offering a wholehearted endorsement of the Temple plan. "The councilman supports this adamantly and wants to know how we can get to yes," he informed the commission. Blondell Reynolds Brown sent a supporting letter.
Neither legislator raised questions about Temple's failure to identify a replacement parcel, as Council mandated in 2011. Temple prefers to make a $1.5 million donation toward the repair of the East Park Canoe House, which was shut down for safety violations in 2008. That proposal has enraged park activists. As Lauren Bornfriend of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance pointed out, no one has done the market research to determine whether the public is getting a fair price for the valuable riverfront property.
Before rushing to approve Temple's proposal, the commission and Council may want to recall the checkered history of the last few boathouse decisions.
In 1992, the city allowed its only public boathouse - Plaisted Hall - to be torn down. Located near the Waterworks, it was the people's boathouse, offering boats to public school students and casual rowers. But because of poor maintenance, the picturesque Tudor building became a safety hazard.
Replaced in 1999 by Lloyd Hall, the new building at 1 Boathouse Row was, strangely, not equipped with a place to store boats. After a charged debate that quickly became politicized, the riverfront site was instead used to house an indoor basketball court. As a result, many of Plaisted Hall's public rowing programs migrated upriver to the city-owned Canoe House. Temple also operated from that lovely, Arts-and-Crafts-era building for many years. But like Plaisted Hall, its maintenance was neglected by the city and it had to be closed in 2008.
Now Temple's rowing program, which is beginning to get respect nationally, is forced to operate from tents outside the Canoe House. Philadelphia's ever-struggling community rowing program, which is the only place where Philadelphia's public school students can try out the sport, also makes do with a tent on the terrace outside Lloyd Hall.
In 2002, St. Joseph's University and St. Joseph's Prep completed the city's first modern boathouse on the south side of the Canoe House. Like Lloyd Hall, its siting was the result of opaque city politics. Almost no one likes the result. Derided as a "Wawa on steroids" because of its bloated form, the building's largely blank facade practically comes to the edge of the heavily used Kelly Drive recreation trail. Aware of the criticism, Temple has promised that its boathouse would be set back 30 feet from the path, though no architectural design has been released yet.
In a city where rowing is practically embedded in the local DNA, any discussion of new boathouses also needs to include provisions for a decent public boathouse. Consider: Pittsburgh has two community boathouses, and Boston just won accolades for its stylish new community rowing center, the Harry Parker Boathouse.
Temple's rowing program certainly deserves a prominent home on the river. But unless it is part of a larger conversation about the Schuylkill riverfront, the city is likely to miss the boat again.