Point Breeze up in arms, again: Why a green space in a parking lot turned a Newbold meeting into a fight

How a fight over a 60 by 75 foot green space turned into a case study in gentrification: “If you want grass, move to the suburbs.”

Left: Plans for Guerin Recreation Center. Right: A portion of the community meeting.

Left: Plans for Guerin Recreation Center. Right: A portion of the community meeting.

You could draw a line down the middle of the room.

On the left side of a classroom at Guerin Recreation Center in South Philly Monday night were younger folks, some new parents, others recent additions to the neighborhood. On the right side were longtime South Philly residents whose families have lived here for generations.

More than 100 people were at a meeting of the Newbold Civic Association — the name Newbold itself was adopted in the last 10 years and is one that sometimes evokes tension among neighbors — and they were warring over a 60 by 75 foot green space that’s proposed to be installed in the parking lot at the recreation center.

Many newcomers to the neighborhood are in favor of the green space, as it’s set to be installed to better stormwater drainage and decrease pollution in the rivers that border the city. But some residents say changing it would remove space they’ve always used for parking, sports for kids and bocce for seniors. And one they’re concerned could soon turn into just another dog park.

Tension has been rising for months and culminated Monday night with yelling back and forth across the room, assertions that new residents to the neighborhood shouldn’t have as much of a say in what happens, and a number of longtime residents walking out on the meeting after shouting matches prompted a police presence.

“We should have another meeting,” James Pisano, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, said during the meeting, “so that only people here for 50 or 60 years can vote on it.”

The Guerin Recreation Center sits at the corner of 16th and Jackson streets in an area that older residents sometimes just call “classic South Philly” and one that newer residents call “Newbold.” It falls south of Point Breeze and just below Passyunk Avenue, and this area has been one of the city’s many hotbeds for gentrification as it ushers in new residents and homebuyers whose presence troubles some deeply-rooted South Philly families.

Those concerns were evident Monday as loud commentary of “I’ve never seen you people around this neighborhood before” and “trust me, I’m invested in this neighborhood” flew around the room. One man yelled “if you want grass, you should move to the suburbs” and another walked out shouting “it’s called Point Breeze, not Newbold.”

And this is all over a green space in a parking lot.

It started with the Philadelphia Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters plan to, over 25 years, reduce stormwater pollution throughout the city by strategically installing pervious surfaces so water can better seep through the ground and be naturally filtered. Jessica Brooks, an engineer with the water department who was present at the meeting Monday, said after performing assessments in the area, the department came to the conclusion that installing green space on the asphalt in the area of the Guerin Recreation Center would be beneficial to the system.

After working for the last several years on design and partnering with the Parks and Recreation department, this is the space design they’ve come up with as way to ensure green area is added while still maintaining parking spaces:

Proposed green space for Guerin Recreation Center.

Proposed green space for Guerin Recreation Center.

A four foot fence would go up around part of the green space, and developers of the project said it’s still unclear just how many parking spaces will be taken up by the new greenery because the area of the lot isn’t currently striped for parking. The Water Department would also install systems that would store excess stormwater.

The change to the lot comes in addition to other massive improvements to the Guerin Recreation Center as Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office — who sent representatives to the meeting Monday — earmarked $725,000 to install new flooring, a gym roof, a new ventilation system, and more.

After a long back-and-forth between the civic association, Parks and Rec, the Water Department and finally Johnson’s office, the association planned last night’s community meeting so residents could air grievances and ask questions of officials. Moderating the commentary was Jessica Gould, president of the West Passyunk Civic Association, and John Longacre, a Point Breeze developer who knows firsthand how contentious the gentrification situation can be in the area.

The civic association conducted an informal poll at the end of the meeting via comment cards after the conversation. Of the 97 people who signed into the meeting, 75 people filled out comment cards. Of those, 63 people indicated they were in favor of the green space.

Still, during the heated meeting some residents expressed concerns that a new green space would usher in unwanted problems from dogs running around the lot to less space for kids to play hockey or basketball. Others wondered who might maintain it.

“You’re accommodating for the Water Department,” one man said, “and you’re not accommodating anyone else.”

It’s unclear if the opposition to the greenery even matters. Water Department officials at the meeting said no matter the opposition, they’ve never seen a project part of the Green City, Clean Waters initiative be completely scrapped.

Newbold Civic Association president Levana Layendecker said she understands concerns from some longtime residents about changes to the neighborhood, but wants others to know that changing the place they grew up in is not the intention of the association.

“I think there is an aversion to change in some ways,” she said after the meeting, adding that “the civic association has been working really hard to build a bridge.”

Anna Maria Vona, who has owned a business in the area for several years and considers herself a “greener cleaner,” didn’t mince words.

“It’s change, and these people are just afraid of change,” she said. “They’re uncertain. These are long-term residents and South Philadelphia is changing.”

Layendecker said the civic association plans to go back to the Department of Parks and Recreation to see if further compromise can be reached on a revised plan to present to the community. She said an agreement on a design will hopefully be reached by the end of the year.

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