Two years ago, Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department closed the golf course in FDR Park after nearly 80 years of operations, citing declining interest and chronic flooding that’s getting worse because of climate change.
Then something unexpected happened: 160 acres — nearly half the park — opened to all park visitors for the first time. Most of the old golf course had reverted to a natural state and became a haven for residents escaping the pandemic in paved-over South Philly.
But the city’s master plan for the park calls for building 12 multipurpose fields, a 13-acre driving range, 10 tennis courts, six baseball and softball fields, and eight basketball courts. It has now run into resistance from people who want the natural area on the park’s western side left alone. They fear the high-quality turf fields will draw large-scale soccer tournaments, attracting players and traffic from out of the area.
Madeline Carasco, of South Philadelphia, visited FDR Park on a recent sunny day with two of her three young children.
“I don’t think they should destroy the environment for fields,” Carasco said. “It’s natural now. My children play in the meadows. They hike the trails.”
Allison Schapker, with the Fairmount Park Conservancy, says that all the athletic fields together will take up 28 acres under a plan designed to appeal to a range of users. The conservancy worked on the master plan, first unveiled in 2019, with Parks and Rec, Friends of FDR Park, and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.
“This project has always been about finding the balance,” Schapker said.
The $250 million plan also calls for a new welcome center, playground, and other amenities. And it addresses serious historic flooding at the park, most of which is in a flood plain. The plan would create a 175-acre “ecological core,” which contains the existing lakes, but calls for relocating current ball fields, parking, and a playground. Shedbrook Creek would be expanded, and flood control would be shored up.
A 36-foot hill would be erected, overlooking the city’s skyline. The park’s 2.5 miles of trails would increase to 7. And a great lawn would create a gateway to the Navy Yard.
“We are trying to develop a network of lakes, streams, wetlands, meadows, and forests that are high quality, high functioning, and can be sustained,” Schapker said.
She said much of the old golf course is exposed to invasive species and is “not necessarily a high-functioning, high-quality ecosystem.” It’s prone to flood even without a big storm.
Rumors that the city has a deal with a private company that operates multitiered golf ranges with restaurants and bars are not true, officials say. And they dispelled a belief among some residents that soccer fields are being built as practice fields for FIFA, an international governing body of soccer, as part of the city’s bid to host the World Cup in 2026. The fields were in the master plan before the city’s bid.
“Philadelphia is facing a recreational field shortage,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Parks and Rec. “There are thousands of coaches and families who rely on public fields and courts to do the critical work of keeping kids active, healthy, and safe.”
Lovell said teams often have to travel to suburbs to play because of a lack of “high-quality youth recreation.” She said there “is enough space to accommodate both natural lands and the courts and fields needed for youth recreation.”
Alvaro Drake-Cortes, secretary for Friends of FDR Park, said soccer fields are particularly important to the city’s growing Latino community.
“Soccer fields become the central place for many in the Latino community to converge as players, fans, families, and much more,” Drake-Cortes said. “The fields are not just a place of athletic convergence, they are also the place where integration and cross-cultural collaboration is born and fostered.”
Opponents believe the fields will act as barriers for non-soccer players. They say much of the new ecological core will comprise existing waterways and is not equivalent to the golf course’s new open space.
Seeking a compromise
David Masur, executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment and a South Philly resident, wants to see most of the old golf course retained as a natural area, though he believes there is room for compromise.
“Nobody is saying we shouldn’t have soccer fields,” Masur said. “But if you look around, it’s sort of incredible that Mother Nature has just taken all of this back. ... We have great horned owls here, and all sorts of migratory birds. This area was all but once inaccessible for most people. Now, it’s become this incredible outdoor space for everyone.”
Masur noted the city’s own research for the plan showed hiking was a top priority for residents.
Maxwell Cohen, who lives in Point Breeze and visits the park five times a week, said the area in the old golf course “doesn’t exist anywhere else around here. People from South Philly can walk around here and feel like they’re in nature.”
Lauren Huckle, of Center City, recently walked through one of the trails along the old golf course with her dog, Cisco.
“I love this area as it is now,” Huckle said.
Andrew Stober, a South Philly resident, said the pandemic changed how people relate to the outdoors and the master plan should change to reflect that.
“I think it’s time to revisit this planning process, which was very expansive and had lots of community engagement,” he said, “but we’ve learned some important things since the pandemic.”
Shaun Durbin said his family has used the park extensively, holding reunions as far back as the 1980s. He likes how the golf course has reverted but is ambivalent about future use. He hopes there’s room for compromise.
“I mean, just look at it,” Durbin said, pointing at a natural area. “It has a better feel to it.”
Tom Duch, also of South Philly, said he regularly golfed at the park, but his views have changed since he had a son, now 2½.
“We had a lot of good times golfing there,” Duch said. “It cost $1 a hole. You couldn’t find that anywhere. But since it closed, I started going there with my son and he loves it. I like the way it is in its natural state. The trails are great. There are wildflowers.
“Having fields like this that are close by are great,” Duch said. “My son got so upset when we tried to leave. He said: ‘I want to go back to FDR!’”