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New play area opens at Fishtown Rec Center — the first completed project tied to Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild initiative

The opening of a renovated Fishtown Recreation Center comes at an important time for Kenney's administration, as it continues to face opposition to the controversial soda tax that helped fund the project.

Judianis Guzman, 14, (right) leads Melanie Loaiza-Hernandez, 10, (center) and Grace Valentin, 11,  through the new playground area at the Fishtown Recreation Center.
Judianis Guzman, 14, (right) leads Melanie Loaiza-Hernandez, 10, (center) and Grace Valentin, 11, through the new playground area at the Fishtown Recreation Center.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

In the summer of 2016, as the Fishtown Recreation Center was down to its final swing and the jungle gym was rusted and broken, the Trust for Public Land called a community meeting at the playground.

Leaders from the organization, a land conservation nonprofit, had set their sights on restoring the aging facility, which decades ago bustled with kids playing Bottle Caps on the sidewalk and cannonballing into “the Swimmo.

For years leading up to that meeting, the once-popular hangout had grown desolate. Much of the equipment was not code-compliant. The rubber surfacing that covered the asphalt was cracked. Vandalism was common; so was frequent drug use.

The trust wanted to rescue the rec center, but Fishtown was in the midst of change, as wealthier, younger residents moved into the working-class neighborhood. So, Danielle Denk, the nonprofit’s Camden program director, knew community input would be vital in finding a balance that could satisfy both groups of Fishtowners.

It was easier than she anticipated. At that 2016 meeting, as “old-time Fishtowners” thumbed through a 1970s Rec yearbook, they recalled their days on the playground and “how great it used to be.”

“They said, ‘Our goal for this playground is for it to be as fun for these kids as it was for us,’” Denk said. “And I thought that was really powerful, because a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, there’s the old Fishtown, the new Fishtown,’ but honestly, everyone shares that they want kids to have a good time.”

On Tuesday, that intention finally became a reality, as political, nonprofit, and rec center officials unveiled the restored public space after months of construction. The event, attended by Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, among others, was also a celebration of the first project completed as a result of Rebuild, Kenney’s initiative that aims to pump $500 million into the city’s parks, recreation centers, and libraries. The bulk of the program is funded by the city’s controversial sweetened beverage tax.

“Now, our kids living in Fishtown have a safe place to have fun and play this summer and all year round,” Kenney said in prepared remarks. “Through funds from the beverage tax, our Rebuild program will continue to not only improve our parks, recreation centers, and libraries across the city, but also build even stronger communities.”

The success of the Fishtown Rec comes at an important time for the Kenney administration, whose beverage tax has faced resistance and legal challenges since the day it was introduced. Still, the legislation — which adds 1.5 cents per ounce to the cost of most drinks with sugar or artificial sweeteners — has withstood all threats.

Even so, the tax isn’t entirely safe. Earlier this year, City Council members introduced a bill to phase out the tax; the bill remains in committee. And a separate resolution was adopted this spring authorizing Council to hire a consultant to research the tax’s economic impact. City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who introduced the bill to amend the soda tax, told The Inquirer in March that “there are concerns [about] how it impacts businesses," especially local shops.

The beverage industry, which has been a prominent critic of the tax, also seems willing to continue its fight. During the City Council primary in May, the American Beverage Association spent more than $630,000 on Quiñones-Sánchez’s campaign alone, PlanPhilly reported. The association also reported spending $600,000 on ads attacking Kenney and the tax.

In a statement provided to The Inquirer, Nicole Westerman, Rebuild’s executive director, said she is “confident that Council will continue to make decisions based on the young people and communities that Rebuild projects serve.”

“Rebuild is already making a big impact at parks and recreation centers across the city,” Westerman continued. “Two-thirds of Rebuild sites are in high-needs neighborhoods, and the improvements Rebuild is funding are critical for communities and young people to thrive. Philadelphia beverage tax revenue is fundamental for this important work to continue and expand to reach more residents.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia parks are improving, thanks to Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild initiative. But need still abounds.

Despite getting off to a slow start — ongoing legal challenges surrounding the soda tax prevented Rebuild from obtaining the bonds needed to fund its work — the program today has 64 sites approved by City Council, and 41 active projects underway, a Rebuild spokesperson said. Approximately $110 million has been committed to carry out those current projects. That includes a $14 million investment in the Vare Recreation Center in Grays Ferry and $12 million in the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion.

As for the Fishtown Rec, a city spokesperson declined to disclose how much Rebuild contributed to the project, which cost $1.1 million. The budget came from a combination of funds contributed by many: Rebuild, Clarke’s capital budget, the Trust for Public Land, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

On Tuesday morning, as rain drizzled and clouds offered shade, construction workers scrambled to put the finishing touches on a fence surrounding the Rec’s newly resurfaced basketball court. Dozens of kids attending Fishtown Rec’s summer camp darted around a roller hockey rink. Inflatable pools sat in the newly developed “Community Commons,” an open space, canopied by trees, with picnic tables. Denk, from the Trust for Public Land, said Fishtown residents had asked for a new gathering space when consulting with them for the project.

The kids at the summer camp weren’t yet allowed on the brand new playground, which would be free to use after the pomp and circumstance in the afternoon. Once the ribbon was cut, however, the kids found new swings, new seating areas, and a new jungle gym. A new splash pad — similar to the one at Dilworth Park that shoots water upward — awaited. So did new ropes courses and slides.

And soon, after a nearly $3 million to $4 million investment from Rebuild, a renovated Swimmo will open across the street. The Swimmo, the name for pool associated with the recreation center, has been closed since 2017.

“The bottom line with this for us is that we were doing what we could with what we had,” Eric Rudy, the supervisor for the Fishtown Rec, said of the years before the investment in the public space. “For us, this is exciting because we get to see new stuff.”