Philadelphia officials on Tuesday announced $4.5 million in funds to start long-awaited improvements at FDR Park that will include a new welcome center with courtyard, an event space overlooking the lagoon, a café, and a new playground.
The planned improvements are the first major commitment to carrying out a master plan to turn the aging South Philadelphia park into “a world-class destination playscape.”
“After a year when park visitation has soared, the need to invest in FDR Park has never been more clear,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “As a child growing up, I spent all my summers here at The Lakes. The commitments being made to FDR Park today will deliver a 21st century park for future generations of Philadelphians to enjoy.”
In 2017, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation launched a process to renovate the 348-acre park after years of heavy use and flooding had taken a toll. The city unveiled a master plan in 2019 that identified multiple issues, including the park’s design, lack of services for visitors, aging infrastructure, and lack of public funding.
The new funding will pay for design and at least some construction needed to turn an existing 5,500-square-foot guardhouse at the park’s Broad Street and Pattison Avenue entrance into a welcome center. The building is currently closed to the public and used only for operations and maintenance.
As such, it will need to be repaired before it can be converted into the welcome center with a planned courtyard, public restrooms, information center, and equipment rentals. The space will also be used by park staff and community organizations for public programs.
Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell also said in the news release that 3,000 residents or stakeholders offered comments through the master-plan process on best use of the park, with many requesting more public services.
“The Welcome Center will provide the basic amenities that allow visitors to extend their stay, and so much more with dining, event and education space, and community workspaces,” Ott Lovell said.
In addition, the existing stables will be transformed into a 6,700-square-foot event space overlooking the Pattison Lagoon and 4,000-square-foot café.
Moreover, funding will go toward design of “a signature playground and picnic area” celebrating the park’s identity. A new children’s play area will be set amid trees with a barrier-free path adjacent to the welcome center.
Maura McCarthy, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, said officials learned people going to the park wanted to see more nature and be able to play at the lakes.
Funding for the welcome center, event space, and café comes from a $3 million grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and $1 million from the city. Those projects are in the planning stage, and construction isn’t expected to start until next year. Additional funds will likely be needed to complete the projects.
Funding for planning of the children’s play area comes from a $250,000 grant by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and $250,000 from the Fairmount Park Conservancy. There is no construction date set.
City officials said other recommendations from the master plan have been implemented over the last 18 months, including a newly paved road loop and parking lots, installation of bike lanes, the appointment of Justin DiBerardinis as the park’s first executive director, and the recruitment of 100 volunteers to help clean the park.
Authors of the master plan projected it would cost $200 million to pay for all the substantial renovations needed for the park, which opened in 1914 and was later named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The park was carved out of marshland, and Hollander Creek was turned into a network of lakes. Currently, the park has a playground, four baseball fields, a skate park, the lakes, the American Swedish Historical Museum, and 126 acres of woods.
The Philadelphia Flower Show will be held June 5-13 at FDR Park because of the pandemic — the first time it will be held outdoors.