Parks Alliance Comments on Temple Boathouse Proposal

View a pdf version of this commentary here.

January 3, 2013

Commission on Parks and Recreation Attn: Temple University boathouse 10th floor 1515 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA 19102

Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance (Alliance), we are writing to provide comments on the Alternatives Analysis submitted by Temple University (Temple) for a proposed transfer of land in Fairmount Park between the East Park Canoe House and Strawberry Mansion Bridge for the construction of a boathouse. 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 (hereinafter 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.

At the outset, the Alliance wishes to emphasize that it does not oppose the conversion of parkland to private use by Temple for a boathouse. Indeed, the Alliance supports activities like rowing that connect people with their parks and natural resources and agrees with the sentiment expressed by Temple that "[f]ew cities in the [United States] or the world can boast a physical setting more beautiful or more perfect for rowing than the shores of the Schuylkill River as it winds through Fairmount Park . . . ." Alternatives Analysis at 1. The Alliance also appreciates the efforts that Temple is making to design a boathouse that is respectful of and compatible with its park surroundings. The Alliance does, however, have several concerns regarding the Alternatives Analysis that Temple submitted and the implementation of the Ordinance to date by the Commission on Parks and Recreation (Commission). These concerns are addressed in the comments that follow.

1. The Commission must require Temple to provide Substitute Land to the City.

The Ordinance unambiguously provides that:

No land that the City owns or holds now or in the future as outdoor park or recreation land may be transferred or converted unless each of the following conditions is satisfied:

The City receives or acquires land to substitute for the transferred or converted land (the "Substitute Land") on or before the transfer or conversion.

Philadelphia Code § 15-102(6). In the Alternatives Analysis, Temple concedes that it is not providing Substitute Land, stating that:

In lieu of substitute land the university is providing $1.5 million towards the costs of renovation [of] the East Park Canoe House, which is currently unusable, and substantial ancillary improvements to the area including the construction of a new retaining wall and surface improvements.

Alternatives Analysis at 10. The Alliance does not believe that this proposal satisfies the requirements of the Ordinance. In order to comply with the Ordinance, Temple must arrange for the City to receive or acquire land to substitute for the transferred land. The City would not receive or acquire any land under Temple’s proposal; it would receive money to be used for making renovations and improvements to land that the City already owns. And while the Alliance supports the renovation of the East Park Canoe House and the construction of a new retaining wall and surface improvements, the Alliance does not believe that these improvements can lawfully take the place of Substitute Land. Because the Alliance supports the "no net loss" concept underpinning Philadelphia Code § 15-102(6), the Alliance believes the Commission must insist that Temple provide Substitute Land as required under the Ordinance.

The Ordinance also provides that:

The Substitute Land must be of at least equal value [‘based on professional, independent appraisals which assume the parcels’ highest and best use without regard to their existing zoning’], size, and park or recreational usefulness as the land to be transferred or converted, as determined by the Commission with input from Department of Parks and Recreation staff."

Philadelphia Code § 15-102(6). Without providing any evidence in support, Temple concludes that providing substitute land for the land being transferred "is not practicable given the unique nature of the property in question." Alternatives Analysis at 10. As an initial matter, the Alliance does not understand how Temple can arrive at this conclusion without having undertaken any appraisal of the land to be transferred as contemplated by the Ordinance. The Commission should either require Temple to undertake the necessary appraisal, or undertake the appraisal itself. Moreover, the Alliance is aware of several parcels throughout our riparian corridors and similar in nature to the property in question that the City is seeking to acquire to extend its network of trails along the waterfront. The Alliance would have been happy to share this information with Temple if Temple had met with the Alliance to discuss the proposed transfer or conversion, an issue addressed in greater detail in comment 3, below. The Commission should require Temple to evaluate these and other parcels, applying the criteria set forth at Philadelphia Code §§ 15-102(6) and 15-104(1)(e).

Even if the Ordinance allowed Temple to provide money for renovation and improvements to land already owned by the City in lieu of Substitute Land, which, as explained above, it does not, the Alliance does not believe that the Commission could approve any such proposal (1) without first confirming that $1.5 million is equal to or greater than the assessed 3 ; and (3) without taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the money is used for its intended purpose and does not end up in a general fund.

Groups" and "Recreation Advisory Councils") and copies of any letters or e-mails that the transferee received about the proposed transfer or conversion from those groups, its members, or other members of the public.

Philadelphia Code § 15-104(1)(c). In a section entitled "Community Outreach," Temple provides a list of organizations with which it met in developing its Alternatives Analysis. Temple reported that its representatives "heard broad support for the construction of a boat house on the site identified." Alternatives Analysis at 9. That is not surprising, given the makeup of the list, dominated as it was by rowing clubs, committees and universities.

In developing its Alternatives Analysis, Temple should have met with a more diverse group of stakeholders. Indeed, Temple did not meet with a single park "Friends Group," as the Ordinance implicitly recommends. None of this is intended to suggest that other kinds of groups would not also have supported the proposed transfer. Regardless, there is value in soliciting input from different kinds of stakeholders. Had Temple met with the Alliance, for example, we could have explained why the "no net loss" concept is so important to our organization and helped identify potential Substitute Land for Temple to evaluate. The Alliance remains willing to meet with Temple to discuss these items.

4. The Commission should condition any approval of the Alternatives Analysis on certain commitments by Temple.

In its Alternatives Analysis, Temple states that "[a]n appropriate setback from the trail would be established during the design process, and therefore accessibility of the trail will not be negatively impacted." Alternatives Analysis at 7. The Commission should require Temple to commit to a specific setback distance to ensure that everyone agrees about what qualifies as an "appropriate setback" and that enjoyment of the trail by park users is in no way diminished by the boathouse.

In the Preliminary Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared by Pennoni Associates Inc., Temple acknowledges that "[m]ost of the existing trees on site will be removed as part of site developments" but states that "[t]he intention is to plant an equivalent or greater number of new trees as part of the site landscape plan" that "will be species appropriate for the setting and acceptable to the Department of Parks and Recreation." EA at 4. The Commission should require Temple to commit to a specific plan now that will compensate park users for the loss of the existing canopy on the site.

Also in the EA, Temple states that the "proposed project will incorporate storm water management practices in accordance with state and local codes . . . ." EA at 5. Existing laws encourage but do not require the use of green infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff. The Commission should require Temple to commit to using green infrastructure to manage its stormwater runoff so park users can enjoy the ancillary benefits associated with that technology.

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 the Parks Alliance at 215-879-8159.