Have you relaxed in one of the rocking chairs outside the ski lodge at the RiverRink Winterfest this holiday season? If not, perhaps you went to the Pop Up Beer Garden on South Street, Spruce Street Harbor Park or Independence Hall Beer Garden over the summer. They’ve all been highly popular, new concepts for Philadelphia, and all of them, design-wise, come from the ideas of David Fierabend and his Groundswell Design team.
Fierabend is a Bucks County native with a background in retail as the founder of the knitwear company Knits and Pieces, which he likens to a “poor man’s Ralph Lauren.” He amassed enough of a fortune from selling his company in the early aughts that he says he could have retired. Instead, he chose to get his master’s in landscape architecture and start another business, Groundswell Design.
Now, thanks in no small part to Fierabend, it’s easier than ever to eat and drink outside in Philadelphia. Billy Penn met with Fierabend to chat about his work and the popularity of outdoor recreation spots in the city.
BP: How did you get started here in Philly?
Fierabend: About six years ago, I started Groundswell. That was in the New Jersey area. We didn’t really come into play here until we started working on Talula’s Garden. It kind of started us working in Philadelphia because that was a Stephen Starr restaurant. It was a home run. It kind of put us on the map in Philly and then everything kind of just started to unfold.
BP: Philadelphia isn’t known for having cool outdoor spots — was that something you wanted to change?
Fierabend: I think the success of (Morgan’s Pier in 2012) got us thinking about public spaces and there just isn’t a lot of green space here. There’s Fairmount Park, but it’s a little outside of the city. It’s easily accessible, but it’s not in your backyard. Morgan’s Pier, all these squares, are in your backyard. But other than having benches, what do they do? We learned that people want to be outside. If you give them a reason to get to that space, we can activate it. That became our Pop Up beer garden on Broad Street. It came the summer after Morgan’s Pier. …We had lines around the block. …We didn’t advertise it or anything. We just kind of let it organically unfold and used a lot of raw, natural elements.
BP: Were people just craving to be outside in Philadelphia without necessarily realizing it?
Fierabend: As odd as it was to people, it was odd to us too. But you do these things that have never been done before. It’s not like you’re taking something that’s been done and fixing it. We were taking a blank canvas that was a parking lot. …We build these spaces and come to them and you see people really do want something to do there. The Spruce Street Harbor Park in particular, this is a park that was inactive. This park got about 100 people a week. It was a pass-through. THere’s nothing going on. Then it went to 30,000 people (this summer). The first weekend they had 6,000 people come through. We were thinking maybe a couple-thousand. And it was 6,000. It was crazy.
The same thing is happening down at Winterfest. We came up with this ski kind of lodge idea. …We wanted a Grandma’s porch and chairs, and people are like sitting in chairs for hours, having a hot chocolate or watching the kids skate.
BP: It’s like people are wanting to go out but still feel like they’re at home in their backyard.
Fierabend: Exactly and hardly anybody in Philadelphia has a backyard. There’s not a lot of open space for people to feel like they’re still at home but in a different environment. They can go down, skate and walk around. I work with PHS (the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society) a lot. I realized that kids in the city didn’t realize where a tomato came from. And it blew me away. Until you’re in a different environment, an urban environment where people live their lives differently, it expands you, it makes you think.
BP: How can Philadelphia continue to improve its outdoor places?
Fierabend: Give a respectful nod to what it was, but when it was built in the ’60s or ’70s, they would never be like, ‘hey let’s put a beer garden in there.’ But it’s 2014. Times and lifestyles change. The key is you’ve got to adapt to that. People are constantly changing. If you keep things they way they are they become relics. And that’s fine. Some things need to be revered. But if there’s a call for it, why not do it? Try it. Had (Morgan’s Pier) not done anything, we would have been like, well, and just tried something else. Washington Square is a great example of a public space that could be activated.
BP: Anything new coming from Groundswell we should look for?
Fierabend: We are working with Asian Arts Initiative on activating the four alley spots on Pearl Street, from Broad down to 11th and under the viaduct. That’ll be up and going next summer. We’re trying to make a connector from North Chinatown to Chinatown. It’s all art.
Photos via Uwishunu and David Fierabend