Parks Alliance Comments on East Park Leadership and Conservation Center Alternatives Analysis

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February 25, 2013

Commission on Parks and Recreation 10th floor 1515 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA 19102

Re: East Park Leadership and Conservation Center Alternatives Analysis

Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance (Alliance), we are writing to provide comments on the Alternatives Analysis submitted by the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound® Philadelphia (hereinafter, NAS/OBP) for a proposed transfer or conversion of land in Fairmount Park that includes the west basin of the East Park Reservoir and surrounding grounds next to the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood for the creation of a proposed educational center for conservation and leadership development referred to as the East Park Leadership and Conservation Center (the proposed building and associated grounds are hereinafter collectively referred to as the Center).

The mission of the Alliance is to champion the public’s interest in outstanding parks, recreation and open spaces, key to making Philadelphia a healthy, vibrant and sustainable city for all. The Alliance played a pivotal role in the introduction, enhancement and enactment of the bill that ultimately became the Open Lands Protection Ordinance, Philadelphia Code Chapter 15-100 (Ordinance), from which the requirement to complete an Alternatives Analysis before converting or transferring outdoor park or recreation land is derived. The Alliance believes that rigorous implementation of the Ordinance is critical to ensuring that there is no net loss of the parks, recreation and open spaces that make Philadelphia a great city in which to live, work and play.

The Alliance supports, with the conditions outlined below, the collaborative efforts of NAS/OBP to "preserve [a man-made lake that was formerly part of the City’s water supply and has become a prime stopover site for migratory birds,] a unique aquatic habitat that might otherwise be drained." Alternatives Analysis at 6. The Alliance also supports the programming that NAS/OBP plans to provide in connection with the proposed Center. Id. at 9-10. Further, the Alliance appreciates the efforts that NAS/OBP is undertaking to develop the building and site in a manner that is respectful of and compatible with its park surroundings.

The Alliance’s chief concern about the proposed Center relates to public access and enjoyment.1 In the Conclusions section of its Alternatives Analysis, NAS/OBP submits that "[t]his project will result in the transfer or conversion of . . . park land for purposes that are consistent and permissible for the recreational use of park land under Pennsylvania law." Id. at 27.2 The Alliance believes that this statement is valid only if the park land to be transferred or converted remains sufficiently accessible and enjoyable to the public; it would be difficult to argue that limiting access to a restricted group of people is a continuation of park use. If the Center is not sufficiently accessible, then the Alliance believes NAS/OBP must arrange for the City to receive or acquire Substitute Land as required under Section 15-102(6) of the Ordinance.

1 The Alliance notes that there are several inconsistencies and contradictions in the various documents regarding how much public access there will be.

2 It is on this basis that NAS/OBP concludes, presumably pursuant to Section 15-103(2) of the Ordinance, that "the provisions of the Open Lands Protection Ordinance that would trigger the requirement of providing substitute land are not applicable." Alternatives Analysis at 27.

3 The Alliance rejects the argument set forth in the Conclusion section of the Alternatives Analysis that "opening 50 acres of land that are currently inaccessible to the public" qualifies as the Substitute Land that Section 15-102 of the Ordinance requires the City to receive or acquire for converted parkland, because the City already owns those 50 acres of land.

4 The Alliance notes that the Community Outreach section on page 21 of the Alternatives Analysis is rather short on the "Friends Groups" and "Recreation Advisory Councils" specifically identified in Section 15-104 of the Ordinance.

The Alliance understands that public safety and site management issues prohibit unfettered access to and enjoyment of this land. The Alliance also acknowledges that the Ordinance does not provide much in the way of guidance on the question of how much public access and enjoyment is sufficient to exempt from the Substitute Land requirement "a transfer or conversion that changes the use of the land to a park or recreational use that would be permissible for outdoor park or recreation land under Pennsylvania law." The Alliance, however, believes that some significant level of public access and enjoyment must be required, and that the original Alternatives Analysis submitted by NAS/OBP at best did not offer enough clarity to determine whether the Center would provide sufficient public access and enjoyment, and at worst indicated that the public access and enjoyment that the Center would provide would be inadequate to qualify for the exemption from the Substitute Land requirement.

Although disappointed not to be included on the list of initial stakeholders to whom NAS/OBP reached out in its development of the vision for the Center,4 the Alliance was pleased that NAS/OBP eventually requested to meet with us to try to identify and address any concerns that we might have. Through meetings and a series of telephone conversations and emails, the Alliance and NAS/OBP have engaged in a constructive dialogue about how NAS/OBP might provide sufficient public access and enjoyment of the Center notwithstanding the various site constraints.

Over the course of these discussions, the Alliance informed NAS/OBP that it would be conditioning its support for the conversion of parkland upon several commitments by NAS/OBP, which the Alliance believes, taking into account all of the site constraints, collectively provide sufficient public access and enjoyment of the Center to qualify for the exemption to the requirement to provide Substitute Land set forth in Section 15-103(2) of the Ordinance. These commitments include:

1) Creation of a viewpoint on top of the embankment that will provide the public with free and frequent sight access to the entire impoundment.

2) Careful design of the 4.47 acres of Fairmount Park that are currently open to the public but that would become more restricted through the development of the Center, with particular attention to the fencing, which must be compatible with park land and provide easy sight access and protection of the character and viewshed of the adjoining Park (i.e., not a chain link fence or other such fence incompatible with park aesthetics).

3) Increased frequency of times and days when the Center will be completely accessible to the public without charge.

Following our discussions, NAS/OBP submitted updates to its Alternatives Analysis and Environmental Analysis (which is incorporated into the Alternatives Analysis by reference) intended to incorporate these commitments. While the Alliance appreciates the efforts of NAS/OBP and believes that the updates are an improvement over the original submissions, some of the commitments in the updates are somewhat vague and equivocal.5

5 E.g., "more attractive options for security fencing will be explored contingent upon funding." The updates also are imprecise about which of and how often the various viewing areas and observation platforms referenced in the submissions will be open to the public free of charge. Finally, the updates offer no additional clarity regarding how often the entire Center would be open to the public without charge.

The Alliance urges the Commission to recommend approval of the transfer or conversion proposed by NAS/OBP only if it (1) requests that NAS/OBP further update its submissions to include specific and firm commitments to provide sufficient public access and enjoyment to the Center; (2) conditions any determination that the Center qualifies for the exemption to the Substitute Land requirement set forth in the Ordinance on specific and firm commitments by NAS/OBP to provide sufficient public access and enjoyment; (3) recommends that Council incorporate specific and firm commitments to provide sufficient public access and enjoyment into any ordinance authorizing the transfer or conversion and/or any lease that the City may enter into with NAS/OBP; and/or (4) require that the City receive or acquire land (that it does not already own) to substitute for the transferred or converted land on or before the transfer or conversion, in order to ensure that there is no net loss of park land sufficiently accessible and enjoyable to the public.

We thank you for your careful consideration of these comments. Should you have any questions or wish to discuss any of our comments further, please do not hesitate to contact us at friends@philaparks.org; rthomas@campbellthomas.com; 215-879-8159.