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Philadelphia: ‘Save the Meadows’

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

A controversy has risen over the $255 million project by the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation to reconstruct sections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park. FDR is a large and popular park, located at the far southern end of the city, near where the Schuylkill River flows into the Delaware.

The plan for the park, drafted in 2018, is frank about problems affecting the park and contains recommendations to ameliorate them. Its guidelines for the eastern section of the park, for example, would help to re-establish key elements of the original park design by the Olmstead brothers in 1913. This would include a restoration of the bucolic environment surrounding the main entrance to the park at Broad Street. The current tennis courts and baseball fields that clutter the area would be removed and relocated, and replaced by a sprawling “Great Lawn” and additional stands of trees. Likewise, the tree cover on the southern bank of Edgewood Lake would be extended, to create a large woodland picnic area.

But some aspects of the city’s plan have caused an outcry. Criticism has focused on plans for the western portion of the park, former farmland that was added to the original League Island Park in 1930. The land includes the grounds of a one-time municipal golf course, which opened in 1940 and was shut down (largely due to flooding problems) in 2018. Since the closure, much of the area—which already contained extensive woods, wetlands, and creeks—was allowed to revert to nature. The fairways became flowering meadows, buzzing with bees and butterflies. Many city residents relished the opportunity to hike the trails and observe the wildlife. The area, of about 160 acres, was dubbed “the Meadows,” a revival of its appellation centuries ago when farms, orchards, and pastures covered much of South Philadelphia. A house associated with one of the historic farms, Bellaire Manor, still stands on a knoll in the Meadows—as it has for the last 300 years.

Two major elements of the city’s plans for the Meadows have come under fire. The first is the plan to fill and level about half of the flood-prone area for the construction of new athletic fields and buildings. Critics, including many local residents and a number of environmental groups, contend that the plan would largely destroy one of the city’s major natural resources—the only park in South Philadelphia that provides significant habitat for wildlife. And, they point out, the proposed athletic facilities would be better located in neighborhoods where there is a real need for them, rather than requiring players, their families, and spectators from all over the city to commute to the far end of South Philadelphia.

The second major controversy arose in August 2022 due to the astonishing suddenness with which the city began to implement its plan. Without giving prior notice, let alone scheduling a public hearing, the project managers sent heavy machinery into the area to clear cut vast areas of woods and meadows. Hikers and dog walkers were caught by surprise as trees came crashing down around them. Within days, scores of mature trees, some of them close to a century in age, had been ripped down. The soil was then scraped to remove all vegetation, and digging commenced. About half of the Meadows is now a muddy construction zone; most of the former hiking trails have been fenced off from the public.

Wildlife has become a casualty of the city’s rush to action. Although the planners state that a habitat study of the Meadows was conducted, little attention was given as to what would happen to the birds and other animals that were dispersed due to the destruction of their surroundings. The clear cutting of the meadows and woodlands was thoughtlessly scheduled to take place right at the start of the season for bird migration. People have photographed bewildered deer that were flushed out as the bulldozers removed the trees and thickets they depend on.

Also disturbing is the fact that no preparation was undertaken for archeological investigation of the area before it was dug up. Native peoples inhabited the area for thousands of years. The Indigenous cultures were supplanted by settlement by farmers and traders from Europe—Swedes, Dutch, Germans, and English—beginning in the 17th century. During the American Revolution, the British built a battery of cannon nearby, at Girard Point. It appears that any historical artifacts that lie in the soil will be gobbled up by excavation work and buried or disposed of without any study.

Wetlands and playing fields—a poor match?

The current plan for FDR Park was first drafted in 2018, and slightly modified in 2022. Supposedly, a third revision is due to be released in February 2023. This plan is the latest of a number of studies that have taken place over the decades. For example, the Fairmount Park Commission published a “Drainage Study” in 1973 to address flooding in the park, and cited other investigations that had been performed in the 1960s. But not all of the proposed remedies were implemented, and flooding has only gotten worse. In 2000, the Park Commission ordered another study, which was quite thorough and counseled park managers to undertake a program of careful conservation and restoration of the natural areas, with the goal of “restoring and maintaining native biodiversity.”

The current plan, released under the auspices of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a non-profit group that works together with the city, and the city’s own department of Parks and Recreation, is far more drastic than earlier proposals in its recommendations for changes in the park. As preparation, it polled a certain number of Philadelphia residents as to what features and activities they would like to see in the park. Their responses were recorded but then largely ignored. The published plan ended up by designating a huge portion of the Meadows (almost half) for the construction of athletic facilities—12 soccer fields, four baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, locker rooms, a café, and loads of parking for cars and buses. This was despite the fact that the residents who had responded to the poll placed such things far down on their preferred list of activities. Instead, a high number of people in community meetings expressed a desire for multi-use trails, both for “active” recreation and to enjoy nature.

The scheme focuses on hydrology concerns. The city’s planners like to describe the park as a “bathtub,” enveloped on all sides by higher ground—as well as by streets and arterial highways, a rail line, and buildings. While the built-up ground to the north and west of the park rises to 20 feet or more above sea level, the northern central section of the Meadows descends to depths as low as six feet below sea level. This means that the park must frequently contend with storm run-off from the streets.

Moreover, the park has a high groundwater level and is subject to tidal action from the back channel of the Delaware and Schuylkill watershed, which rises and falls about four feet twice a day as the tide changes. The tidal gate into the park has been malfunctioning for decades. The Fairmount Park Conservancy has demonstrated in a model that flooding would be significantly curtailed once the gate is repaired.

However, current flooding from the rivers will be exacerbated by climate change. The water level of the Delaware River in this area is projected to rise by about four feet by the end of the century—and given the fact that current measures to stem climate change are woefully insufficient, the rise might even be greater. As a result, most of FDR Park could be permanently inundated by flooding. Climate change will also increase the likelihood of powerful rainstorms and hurricanes, and it will tend to increase the salinity of the rivers and the groundwater—potentially damaging the park’s plants and animals.

As a partial remedy, the plan calls for dredging away the soil in the southern section of the Meadows in order to extend the wetlands, while replacing the former tree cover with 7000 native saplings and several thousand shrubs that are supposedly more suited to the hotter and wetter conditions that climate change will bring. Unfortunately, a young tree can absorb only a fraction of the CO2 that a mature tree can sequester. According to a report cited by Ohio State University, it takes 269 saplings to offer the same environmental benefits of one healthy mature tree, 36” in diameter.

This wetlands portion of the project is being financed by the Philadelphia International Airport, in accord with federal environmental law requiring it to compensate for the wetlands it will be destroying in Southwest Philadelphia for the construction of a new cargo facility.

Much of the excavated soil would be used as fill for the construction of athletic playing fields in the northern and western portions of the Meadows. After the golf course was shut down, that area had rather quickly reverted into flowering meadows, reedy marsh, and a spreading amount of woodlands. Low undulating bluffs sloped gradually into a bowl, through which several branches of Shedbrook Creek meandered. Some of that area has now been bulldozed, and a gravel road for trucks runs through it. A strip west of the creek is currently still open to hikers, but here too, the natural environment is due to be radically altered in coming years to construct sports facilities.

The plan is to raise the ground on both sides of the creek well above flood stage. Published maps for the rebuilding of this area of the park appear to show that a future widened Shedbrook Creek, rather than running through a wide and gently sloping valley that is rimmed with wetlands, would instead run though a high-banked ravine—with dangers of erosion. The newly raised surface above the creek would then be flattened, compacted, and capped with playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, buildings, and parking lots.

The spokespeople for the city’s FDR Park plan state that the soccer fields would be covered with an artificial turf constructed out of plastic fibers embedded in a backing of organic materials like cork and coconut, which have some capacity to absorb rainfall. They have also made the claim that the artificial turf would absorb a certain amount of CO2, and thus help to fight climate change. But that is false; although cork trees absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, the bark, used as turf, releases CO2 as it decomposes. Moreover, it would replace natural vegetation that does absorb carbon dioxide. Also, the artificial turf tends to break down in time, creating the danger that particles, including micro-plastics, will be washed into the creeks and wetlands.

To add to their flood-avoidance package, the project managers state that water-retention basins would be built underneath the new playing fields. Yet the cost of this construction is extraordinary, close to $100 million just for building the playing fields and their associated infrastructure, while its effectiveness in limiting water runoff is unproven. It should be apparent, in fact, that constructing sports facilities and parking lots in this sensitive area are likely to compound the problems of flooding. On the other hand, efforts to retain and ameliorate what was already in the area—wetlands, meadows, and mature trees—should help to mitigate flooding while acting to absorb CO2 and provide habitat for animals and pollinating insects, etc. They would also ensure the survival of the current activities that people have enjoyed in the Meadows—picnicking, hiking, foraging, nature studies for children, bird watching, etc.

Also acting to the detriment of the natural environment is the fact that the new playing fields, according to the city plan, would be equipped with light towers to facilitate nighttime use. The Audubon Society has expressed alarm that this would have an extremely adverse effect on the birds and other wildlife in the adjacent wetlands and forest.

Destroying wetlands and tree cover, and then compacting the soil, covering it with artificial turf, and lighting it up like a small city is a grave mistake in this period of intersecting world crises—climate-change and a drastic reduction of bio-diversity. The need to protect the environment is now at a critical stage, and without deep and rapid emergency measures, will spiral toward catastrophe.

Misguided development along the rivers

The problem of flooding, of course, is not limited to FDR Park. Heavy rainfalls often trigger flooding across much of the Philadelphia region. The problem has steadily worsened as more and more farmland and woods are replaced by development,

Historically, the area of FDR Park has shared an ecosystem with contiguous low-lying areas along both the Schuylkill and the Delaware rivers. The creeks that run through the park, Hollander’s and Shedbrook (formerly Ship Brook), used to drain a large area of South Philadelphia, through a web of tributaries. But over the years, those streams were diverted into sewers, and open land became rows of buildings; with this development, flooding in the park has worsened.

For that reason, attempts to ameliorate the flooding in FDR Park must take into account the environmental conditions within a far broader area. The land along the Schuylkill, slightly to the west and north of FDR Park, is a case in point. That area, like FDR, used to contain marshes in the lower riverside region and woods, meadows, and farmland in the uplands. Up through the middle of the 19th century, it was known as a picturesque leisure spot, a place for hunting, fishing, and relaxing, with a number of hotels and inns to accommodate the vacationers. Around 1870, however, the Atlantic Refining Company set up operations there. In the century and a half since that time, under the aegis of several corporate owners, the oil and gasoline refineries spread to cover an area the size of Center City Philadelphia. Oil and other chemicals saturated the soil and gasses poured into the air; the refineries became the metropolitan area’s largest single emitter of air pollution. Residents of the mainly Black working-class neighborhoods abutting the complex were the main victims—diseases like asthma and cancer were widespread.

Facing bankruptcy after a disastrous fire and explosion in June 2019—and following the protests of a community group, Philly Thrive—the last refinery owner, Philadelphia Energy Solutions, closed down operations. The land was sold to a Chicago-based developer, Hilco, which plans to build a giant complex of warehouses and other buildings, possibly including laboratories for the life sciences, in a development that it has dubbed the Bellwether District. Construction of the first buildings—one 700,000-square-foot warehouse and another warehouse of 326,000 square feet—is due to begin in the spring of 2023.

The glossy renderings that Hilco has released give little clue as to what may be ultimately in store for the 1300-acre property. Some of the initial drawings depict a variety of green-roofed buildings set in a campus containing numerous parks, a tree-line walkway along the river, and even a marina. But other illustrations show at least a dozen huge one-story warehouses that cover almost all of the property and stretch all the way to the banks of the Schuylkill. Moreover, Hilco plans to retain a petroleum tank farm, and it has lobbied for a new road and interchange to connect the property with the Schuylkill Expressway. There is little doubt that the droves of cars and trucks needed to supply the warehouses with workers and goods will continue to threaten the health of people living in nearby neighborhoods.

What about the danger of flooding? Since much of the land, especially in the southern portion, is close to or even below sea level, Hilco plans to meet the problem by trucking in acres of new soil, in order to raise the ground above flood stage. Unfortunately, further channelizing the Schuylkill, and covering the surrounding ground with concrete, will only increase flooding problems downstream, affecting FDR Park as well as areas like the Navy Yard, the airport, and the Eastwick neighborhood. A more responsible solution would be to return the lower lying areas of the Hilco property to a condition similar to the period before the refineries were established—marshes, thicketed meadows, and cedar swamps. While it could take many years for the natural eco-system to fully recover, even the initial stages of restoration would allow areas for the Schuylkill to spill over when it is in flood stage, while absorbing a large amount of run-off flowing into the river. In addition, sufficient green space and tree cover should be provided on the upland sections of the property to buffer the nearby community from the truck pollution and noise.

A similar scheme, though far smaller in scale, was recently announced for a property up the river, on the west bank, just south of the Passyunk Avenue Bridge. In that spot, which includes wetlands, the New Jersey-based developer Bridge Industrial wants to raze a petroleum tank farm in order to build a 487,000-square-foot warehouse, with parking for 244 employees and for 95 large trailer trucks. The developer has claimed that the destroyed wetlands would be compensated for by building a new wetland mitigation area. However, the parking lot would drain into the proposed mitigation area and eventually into the river. The Clean Air Council, which is protesting the plan, points out that the current wetland is habitat for the threatened northern red-bellied cooter turtle and that preservation of the land could also aid the ability of Philadelphia residents to access the banks of the river.

It is difficult to foresee whether or how far these proposals for acres of warehouses on both sides of the Schuylkill will come to fruition. Right now, developers in this area and across the country are engaged in a hectic race with one another in the game of corporate logistics. Almost every week, there is a story in the news about how one more family farm is to be paved over for a mega-warehouse. In general, city and township councils compete among themselves to lure the developers to their districts. They frequently offer big tax breaks, looser environmental and zoning restrictions, and efforts to widen the country roads or build new expressway interchanges in order to accommodate the increased truck traffic.

The corporations, for their part, certainly realize that the frenzied construction of logistics facilities must at some point lead to over-capacity—especially with a probable economic slowdown on the horizon. Amazon, which leads the pack, has already pulled back from its plans to build a warehouse in Southwest Philadelphia. But smaller or newer corporations are still scrambling to get the edge over their competitors. They are often heavily in debt, and need to get their projects off the ground with speed in order to maximize their profits. They are not in the mood to invite the input of nearby residential communities toward their projects, or to hew very closely to the legal requirements to protect the environment.

In the city of Philadelphia, along the Schuylkill, corporations like Hilco and Bridge Industrial understand that they are more in the public eye than they are in rural districts. To get the public on its side, Hilco has produced videos that promise an almost magical new cityscape that will hypothetically provide some 19,000 jobs—at an undetermined date in the future. But they have stalled when working-class residents who live next to the project demand a voice in shaping these decisions, in order to protect their children’s health and to ensure the best use of the environment. For Hilco, Bridge Industrial, and other logistics corporations, profits are the bottom line—not people’s needs, and certainly not the environment. And so, the community cannot let up in striving to be heard and to get their demands fulfilled.

The situation in FDR Park is similar in many ways. Here, the agent of change is not a private corporation but the city governmental bureaucracy, which tends to bend to moneyed interests before it bothers to listen to community concerns. A decade ago, despite protests, the city sold off to a housing developer many acres of forested land on a hillside that drained into Pennypack Creek. A similar story took place this year, when hundreds of “heritage” trees (notable for size, age, or uniqueness) on the edge of Cobb’s Creek were thoughtlessly mowed down in order to expand a municipal golf course that had been leased to a private company. Plans call for clearing an additional 400 trees, including 150 heritage trees on 13 acres of parkland; by law, a public hearing must be scheduled before the work can proceed, though a date has not been set.

In the meantime, the city has heedlessly put their new plan into effect in FDR Park, while minimizing any real interaction with the public. They have released to the press many articles that laud the project, but refuse to acknowledge the widespread opinion that a large complex of sports fields and car parks does not belong in the Meadows—and that these facilities should be placed instead in neighborhoods where people need them. Save the Meadows and other environmental and community groups are demanding that the clear cutting of trees and further plans by the city be put on hold until mass community hearings can be arranged to determine the future of the park. Their website is savethemeadows.com.

Photos: Scenes in the FDR Park Meadows by Celyne Camen.

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