Debra Wolf Goldstein
is chair of the Land Use, Planning, and Design Committee of the Philadelphia Commission on Parks and Recreation
Temple University's decision to terminate its men's and women's crew teams - which for many years have been among the best in the country - has shocked the city's athletic community.
However, the blame for this seemingly shortsighted decision lies with the university trustees, not with the city's opposition to Temple's proposal to construct a giant new boathouse along a narrow stretch of Kelly Drive.
For decades, Temple rowed out of the East Park Canoe House, a city-owned historic building for which Temple paid no rent and for which it refused to pay for increasingly necessary renovations. Other boathouses along Kelly Drive are owned by various universities and rowing clubs that pay for all repairs, renovations, and upkeep.
When the deteriorating East Park Canoe House finally was condemned by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in 2008, Temple allowed its rowers to languish in tents next door to the Canoe House for years.
In 2012, Temple came to the Philadelphia Commission on Parks and Recreation, which is the appointed volunteer body that replaced the Fairmount Park Commission, with a proposal to shoehorn a giant new boathouse onto a small triangle of parkland tucked under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.
That boathouse would obliterate the staging area used for all Philadelphia regattas, complicate an already dangerous traffic pattern on a narrow curve along Kelly Drive, and leave the old, historic boathouse to continue its decline in the shadow of the new building. Moreover, Temple claimed it needed a 23,000-square-foot structure to maintain a viable program, despite the fact that the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel have nationally recognized rowing programs using boathouses one-third that size.
The city's open-lands protection ordinance requires, among other things, that a proposal to use public parkland for private uses must show that there is no reasonable and practical alternative. In this case, the ordinance worked just as it should, clarifying that there was a very viable alternative to taking valuable, actively used riverfront parkland: reuse of the existing Canoe House.
Members of the commission worked with Temple architects immediately after the hearing to develop an alternative plan that would expand and adaptively reuse the Canoe House, fully accommodate Temple's rowing program needs, and cost about the same as building a brand-new boathouse. Then the Temple administration changed, and with that came radio silence.
Temple might have tried to raise funds from alumni rowers before simply deciding that moving its rowers out of tents would be too expensive and then abruptly cutting the program. I hope student athletes and the rowing community still can join forces to persuade Temple to change course. If they do, I would think that the commission would welcome the chance to work with Temple to develop a viable renovation and expansion of the East Park Canoe House.