In virtually its last act after 142 years in existence, the Fairmount Park Commission yesterday approved the acquisition of 12 acres - two parcels that will be carved from a bank of the Schuylkill south of Center City.
The prospective parkland is composed of two unpromising slivers at the moment, but will form the next sections of the Schuylkill River Trail, the green ribbon running for miles along the river from Montgomery County, down through the city to Locust Street, and eventually to the Delaware River.
Mark Focht, executive director of the 9,200-acre park, remarked that adding land was a fitting "final order of business" for the commission.
The commission, established by state law in 1867 as an independent body empowered to preserve parkland for the public, was abolished by voters with a City Charter amendment in November. The chronically underfunded Fairmount Park will be merged with the city's Recreation Department, and a new advisory commission on parks and recreation will set guidelines on land acquisition and other matters.
Yesterday was the Fairmount Park Commission's last public meeting; it officially goes out of business at the end of June.
Mayor Nutter, who supported the charter change, spoke at the meeting and reiterated his commitment to the park.
"I love this park system," he said. "I am deeply committed to the park system. I care about the park system."
He assured the commission that the park's "history and its future will remain intact."
"I know there's a certain sense of sadness," Nutter said, referring to the demise of the historic panel. But he added that "this will be one of the best systems anywhere in the United States."
Several commissioners nevertheless took the opportunity to express their concerns about the future of the park. Several noted that the $13 million park budget had been stagnant for years, leading to staff shortages and maintenance problems.
Commissioner Harris Baum likened the underfunding to the iceberg that sank the Titanic. "It has caused a multitude of problems," he said.
Other commissioners expressed worries over a bill introduced May 7 in City Council that would open the door to park development. The bill was withdrawn this week. Its sponsor, Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski, said its intent was to address problems at a historic site in her Northeast district - not to affect the park as a whole.
Alex Bonavitacola, vice president of the commission, singled out the bill as a significant concern regardless of its intent.
"Is it an omen or a preview of things to come?" he wondered. "Those who supported the recent charter change have a lifetime of vigilance."
The presence of the Fairmount Park Commission would not stop such sweeping Council legislation, commission members have said, but no land could be sold or developed without commission approval. The advisory parks and recreation commission will have no power to block sales or development.
Commissioner Farah Jimenez said those who had established the commission deliberately shielded it from direct mayoral or Council control to minimize the threat of political or economic pressure.
"There are those of us today who feel the same way," she said, challenging supporters of the charter change "to prove us wrong."
Michael DiBarardinis, commissioner of the newly formed Department of Parks and Recreation and a former city recreation commissioner and Fairmount Park commissioner, reiterated his commitment to "conserve and preserve Fairmount Park."
"It's a daunting task," he allowed.