Parks Alliance Comments on Project 250; Multi-Sport, Entertainment, & Youth Development Center; Alternatives Analysis

View a pdf version of these comments here.

December 15, 2014

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

Re: Project 250; Multi-Sport, Entertainment, & Youth Development Center; Alternatives Analysis

Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance (Alliance), we are writing pursuant to Section 15-102 of Philadelphia’s "Open Lands Protection Ordinance,"1 to provide the Commission on Parks and Recreation (Commission) with our comments on the Alternatives Analysis submitted by Project 250 proposing to transfer or convert2 a portion of Franklin D. Roosevelt Park (FDR Park) in South Philadelphia for the development of a Multi-Sport, Entertainment, & Youth Development Center (hereinafter, the "Velodrome").

1 See Philadelphia Code, ch. 15-100 (hereinafter "Open Lands Protection Ordinance" or "Ordinance").

2 It is unclear from the Alternatives Analysis whether Project 250 is contemplating a transfer or a conversion.

3 The Alliance first learned about the Velodrome proposal on November 16, 2014 and was first contacted by the Project 250 team on November 17, only a month prior to the December 17, 2014 Commission meeting.

The mission of the Philadelphia Parks 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, 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. For that reason, in July 2013, on the two year anniversary of the law, the Alliance released a Guide to the Ordinance with the goal of raising awareness, explaining its requirements in simple terms, and providing insight into how the Alliance interprets it.

While the Alliance appreciates the benefits that the construction of the Velodrome could bring to the city and the efforts that Project 250 has made to create a sustainable project and to enhance FDR Park and the community, the Alliance cannot support this 5,844 spectator capacity sports, concert and entertainment arena as proposed in the Alternatives Analysis, which, for the reasons set forth in these comments, does not satisfy the Open Lands Protection Ordinance. The Alliance stands ready to assist Project 250 in identifying another location for the Velodrome that would satisfy the Ordinance and that we could support.

The Alliance respectfully submits the following comments:

1. The continuation of the original use of the land as outdoor park or recreation land remains practicable and possible and has not ceased to serve the public interest.

Pursuant to the Open Lands Protection Ordinance, an Alternatives Analysis must provide a detailed explanation of "why the continuation of the original use of the land as outdoor park or recreation land is no longer practicable or possible and has ceased to serve the public interest."4 Project 250 cannot satisfy this criterion. The portion of FDR Park that Project 250 proposes to be transferred or converted continues to be used as outdoor park and recreation land. Many citizens continue to use and enjoy this portion of FDR Park for various park and recreational activities as well as for the viewshed that it provides.

4 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-104(a)(i).

5 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-104(a)(ii).

Likely recognizing that it cannot strictly meet this criterion, Project 250 attempts to modify its terms. In its Alternatives Analysis, Project 250 states that "[t]he present configuration and use of the proposed project site has ceased to serve public [sic] in the best possible use." This, however, is not the test set forth by the Open Lands Protection Ordinance. The Ordinance requires the proposed transferee to explain "why the continuation of the original use of the land as outdoor park or recreation land is no longer practicable or possible," not that the land serves the "best possible use." If "best possible use" were the test, almost any parkland in Philadelphia could be transferred or converted, because the city does not spend nearly enough money to operate and maintain its parks. The Commission should apply the test set forth in the Ordinance rather than the test fabricated by Project 250 in making its determination in accordance with Section 15-102(3).

2. The proposed transfer or conversion is not necessary for the public interest.

The Open Lands Protection Ordinance also requires that an Alternatives Analysis provide a detailed explanation of "why the proposed transfer or conversion is necessary for the public interest."5 In an attempt to meet this criterion, Project 250 offers unsubstantiated claims that the site is a "vastly underused portion of the park" that is rife with unspecified "undesirable activities" and whose infrastructure suffers from unspecified "continued deterioration." These bare assertions, however, do not even come close to satisfying the Ordinance’s requirement of a "detailed explanation[]." It is also revealing that Project 250 3

does not provide any data to substantiate its claims, with which many citizens would strongly disagree, for the reasons stated in the previous section. Project 250 cannot claim that the proposed transfer or conversion is necessary for the public interest, because the public interest is already served quite well by the existing use of the land.

3. Project 250 has not properly explained why there is no reasonable and practical alternative to the proposed transfer or conversion.

The Open Lands Protection Ordinance also requires that an Alternatives Analysis provide a detailed explanation of "why there is no reasonable and practical alternative to the proposed transfer or conversion."6 Project 250’s explanation in its Alternatives Analysis falls woefully short in this regard.

6 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-104(a)(iii).

7 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-102(6).

8 See id.

9 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-104(1)(e).

First, the Alternatives Analysis explains that "the ultimate success of the project is dependent upon a location that is close in proximity to the existing sports complex, I-95 and Broad Street." Although the Alliance can understand why the project may benefit from this location, it does not believe that Project 250 has sufficiently explained why this location is essential to "the ultimate success of the project" and why other locations in the city meeting the various criteria that the Alternatives Analysis describes (visibility, size, access) could not also meet the needs of this project. By limiting the geographical scope in this nature, Project 250 has unreasonably restricted its analysis of alternatives.

Further, even within the alternatives that it considered, the Alternatives Analysis comes up short. While the Alternatives Analysis explains why these sites pose challenges, it does not sufficiently demonstrate that they are not "reasonable or practical." Project 250 does not explain, for example, why consideration of the privately held site for another large-scale development opportunity prohibited its acquisition. It also does not explain why it is not "reasonable or practical" to overcome the site constraints at the William Penn High School site. While these sites may not have scored as high on its site evaluation matrix, Project 250 simply has not shown that they are not "reasonable or practical," as required by the Open Lands Protection Ordinance.

4. Project 250 has not actually proposed Substitute Land, and the Substitute Land that it has proposed is inadequate.

According to the Open Lands Protection Ordinance, in order for outdoor park or recreation land to be transferred or converted, the city must "receive[] or acquire[] land to substitute for the transferred or converted land (the ‘Substitute Land’) on or before the transfer or conversion."7 The Substitute Land "must be of at least equal value, size, and park or recreational usefulness as the land to be transferred or converted."8 An Alternatives Analysis must include a description of the proposed Substitute Land.

As its Substitute Land, Project 250 proposes in its Alternatives Analysis to convert an existing parking lot into a community park located just north of Pattison Avenue across from FDR Park. However, this parking lot is already owned by the City of Philadelphia. For that reason, the city would not "receive[s] or acquire[d]" any land to substitute for the transferred or converted land under this proposal. One cannot receive or acquire that which one already owns. For that reason, Project 250 has not proposed Substitute Land as required under the Open Lands Protection Ordinance.

Even if it were not already owned by the city, the proposed Substitute Land would be inadequate. The Open Lands Protection Ordinance requires that the Substitute Land, among other things, be of at least equal size as the land to be transferred or converted. As we understand it, more than just the 3.9 acres on which the Velodrome would be developed would be "transfer[red]" or "convert[ed]," as those terms are defined in the Ordinance, as part of this proposal. For that reason, Project 250 would need to provide more in the way of Substitute Land than just the 3.9 acres on which the Velodrome would be developed to meet the requirements of the Ordinance.

5. The Velodrome does not qualify for the exemption in the Open Lands Protection Ordinance.

The Open Lands Protection Ordinance contains certain exemptions.10 One of those exemptions provides that "[t]he provisions of § 15-102(3)(i) and (iv), (5) and (6) and § 15-104(1)(a)(i) and (1)(e) do not apply to 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."11 Some of the referenced provisions relate to the Substitute Land requirement, while others relate to the requirement that the continuation of the original use of the land as outdoor park or recreation land no longer be practicable or possible or serve the public interest.

10 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-103.

11 See Philadelphia Code, § 15-103.

The Velodrome does not qualify for this exemption. First, we understand that the City Solicitor has interpreted this exemption not to apply to the conversion of open land to a structure, which would clearly disqualify the Velodrome. In addition, even in the absence of the Solicitor’s narrow interpretation, we do not believe that the Velodrome, a private arena with limited public access, would be permissible for outdoor park or recreation land under Pennsylvania law. We would anticipate, under existing precedent, that the courts would invalidate this transfer or conversion if City Council were to decide to enact legislation to exempt this project from the Open Lands Protection Ordinance.

The Alliance and our constituents have additional concerns about the transfer or conversion of portions of FDR Park. The Olmsted designed park was designated an historical district by the City of Philadelphia’s Historical Commission in 2000 with the intention of protecting and preserving it. The park’s character and much needed viewsheds in a dense part of Philadelphia, its old growth trees, 170 species of migratory birds, as well as its architecturally significant structures would be substantially impacted 5

by this proposed project. In addition, the Velodrome would chip away at one of the few large contiguous sections of parkland in Fairmount Park.

For all of these reasons, the Alliance cannot support the Velodrome as it is currently proposed in its Alternatives Analysis. We invite Project 250 to contact us if they would like our assistance in identifying another location.

Thank you for your consideration of these comments. Should you have any questions or wish to discuss any of our comments further, please feel free to contact the Parks Alliance at 215-879-8159.