Just how close Philadelphia officials came to declaring all of Fairmount Park's 9,200 acres open to bulldozers will never be known. But the City Council proposal scuttled last week should serve as a warning on the dangers of the coming parks and recreation merger.
When voters amended the City Charter in November to abolish the 142-year-old Fairmount Park Commission, they acted on pledges from Mayor Nutter and park advocates alike that the creation of a city Department of Parks and Recreation would enhance the preservation and upkeep of Fairmount Park.
If the charter change instead proves to have eliminated a valuable public forum and safeguard against park development, then citizens will need to clamor for a reform of the reform.
Just as the old park commission was wrapping up its last orders of business, it sure looked that way.
A misguided legislative proposal from Councilwoman Joan L. Krajewski would have thrown open the entire park to housing, commercial development, signs, parking, and other uses. It was just weeks away from potential passage by Council.
Only after a public outcry did Krajewski yank the bill, saying her intent wasn't to unleash development across Fairmount Park. According to Krajewski, the bill was meant only to address long-standing operational issues at the historic Glen Foerd Mansion in Northeast Philadelphia.
Even as such, it was a bad idea.
Sloppy legislating, or a stealth proposal to open up the entire park to development? Now that the Krajewski bill has been scrapped, the question is moot.
The real worry, though, is that the Fairmount Park Commission - which had the right to veto any park development - is gone. Its replacement, the advisory Commission on Parks and Recreation, won't have such a veto and isn't even required to meet frequently.
A chief responsibility of the new commission will be to set new land-use guidelines for parkland and act as a watchdog in its advisory role.
The hope is that Nutter, his new parks and recreation czar, Michael DiBerardinis, and their successors will abide by the panel's directives. But they won't have to do so, since Fairmount Park now comes under the mayor's direct control.
It's good to hear that DiBerardinis - whose credentials are solid as the state's former parks chief and city recreation commissioner - welcomes an activist commission, soon to be named by Nutter from candidates nominated by Council.
To be effective, the commission should convene regularly and take full advantage of its bully pulpit. An airing by the commission should be a de facto requirement for any park-related measure put before Council or launched by the mayor, who fortunately has been a strong park advocate and pledges to make Fairmount Park "one of the best."
At the same time, leading park advocates like the Philadelphia Parks Alliance no doubt are right about the "need for organized and ever-vigilant citizens and parks and recreation advocates."
The first test of the mayor's pledge will be the caliber of his appointees to the parks and recreation commission. He also needs to get that panel up and running soon - before the next proposal comes along to dig up parkland.