RESIDENTS of Strawberry Mansion were polite, but concerned, at a hearing Wednesday night on a proposed bird-and-wildlife sanctuary nearby.

The National Audubon Society and Outward Bound Philadelphia are collaborating to build the East Park Leadership and Conservation Center on more than 54 acres of city-owned land surrounded by Fairmount Park.

Conceptual design plans call for a two-story, 17,000-square-foot building "nestled into the berm" at the edge of the reservoir there. The sanctuary would host students to help them gain a better understanding of science and nature.

The Philadelphia Parks Alliance and others say that, on certain conditions, they will support the project's exemption from the city's Open Lands Protection Ordinance, which states that an organization can build on public open land only if it provides another equivalent open space.

The main condition is that the facility be open to the public. Several residents at the hearing at the Mander Recreation Center, 33rd and Diamond streets, questioned whether it would be.

"We live in this community, but when the regatta is going on, we are excluded," Strawberry Mansion resident Larry Lane said of the boat races that pepper the Schuylkill. "The cars are parked on the grass, destroying the grass, and we can't use this part of the park. Now, with this new center coming in, is there going to be more parking, destroying the grass?"

Former Judge Jimmie Moore praised the project, saying that it will teach youngsters and keep them out of the criminal-justice system. "I am 100 percent, 150 percent standing behind the project," Moore said.

Meg Wise, executive director of the neighboring Smith Memorial Playground, also strongly supported it. She said that the playground received 184,000 visits last year. "This area of the park is on the rise," Wise said.

Currently, 50 acres, including a 37-acre man-made lake that the Philadelphia Water Department manages as part of the city water system, are restricted from any public access.

The Parks Alliance said that the East Park center plans to use those 50 acres, plus an additional 4.47 acres that are now open to the public.

The proposed center would be between Kelly Drive and 33rd Street, around Reservoir Drive, diagonally across from the Smith Memorial Playground, at 33rd Street and Oxford Avenue.

Janet Starwood, director of Urban Conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania, said that current plans are "very preliminary" and that the center is willing to talk with residents to address their concerns.

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN