As the first test of Philadelphia's new parkland preservation rules, Temple University's proposal to build a much-needed boathouse on the Schuylkill along Kelly Drive is proving to be a challenging one.
The university's student rowers, having been turned out of the dilapidated East Park Canoe House several years ago, understandably are eager to see the plans move ahead. Temple envisions a 23,000-square-foot boathouse and an adjacent dock on a riverfront tract near Strawberry Mansion Bridge. The project's cost is in the range of $8 million to $12 million.
This rare addition of another facility along famed Boathouse Row likely would boost the city's status as a thriving center of rowing. Schuylkill competitions stretch back as far as Benjamin Franklin's time, and today's regatta-rich tradition on the river means plenty of Benjamins for the city's visitor industry.
It's no surprise then that there was widespread agreement at an informal public hearing held Wednesday before the city's Commission on Parks and Recreation that it would be great to see Temple's rowers move out of the tents they've been using since 2008. Among those offering crucial support was the area's district city councilman, Curtis Jones Jr.
After that, though, it gets a bit tricky.
That's because Temple's plan clearly misses the mark under land preservation rules enacted in early 2011 by City Council and Mayor Nutter.
The ordinance was written to accompany the launch of the parks panel, which city voters approved as an advisory replacement for the Fairmount Park Commission. For the first time, guidelines were put in place to guard against overdevelopment of Fairmount Park, including Boathouse Row. Chief among them was the proviso that any private construction on publicly owned land would have to be offset with new parkland provided by the project developer.
But rather than offer a land swap, Temple has proposed making a $1.5 million payment to the city toward the renovation of the Canoe House, which was condemned as unsafe. That project may cost up to $5 million, but it's unlikely to move ahead at all without the seed money that Temple has put on the table.
As for not offering an alternative property, university officials said they believed that was not practical anywhere near their riverfront location.
Even so, Temple's proposal was bound to be called into question by park advocates. As representatives of parks groups organized under the Philadelphia Parks Alliance noted on Wednesday, what was the purpose of the city enacting the land-protection rules if - on the first outing - they're ignored?
The parks panel has until early March to offer its verdict on the proposal, which City Council nonetheless could choose to ignore. The 15-member commission of mayoral appointees and city officials, including Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis, has to be aware that this is an important test. And apart from the advantages of the approach offered by Temple, there's a clear risk that approving this deal as-is would set the wrong precedent.
Fortunately, Temple officials - after getting an earful this week - now say that they're open to "looking at the land option" and that they're "not locked in on any position," according a spokesman.
That's the direction to which everyone should pull.