A construction ditch in Kensington has enough water for kayaking

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Updated Sept. 10

Construction ditches are a common sight in Philadelphia’s rapidly developing Kensington neighborhood. But the one at York and Jasper streets is particularly noticeable.

It’s been there for three months, and it’s full of water deep enough for recreational activities. In fact, a few Philly neighbors actually took a kayak out onto the pop-up body of water.

“We make jokes that it’s a lakefront property, it’s a lagoon,” said Jordan Baumgarten, the photographer who snapped the kayak photo. “You kind of have to make jokes about it.”

Developer Roman Sosalski of Locale Philly told Billy Penn he dug the hole at 1836 York St. about 90 days ago to build a basement for a planned 25,000-sq.-ft. mixed-used development. The required preliminary report didn’t indicate any water issues, he said. When the hole began filling up, he halted construction.

Workers tried to pump out the water, per the developer, but it filled back up again right away. He had no idea nearby residents were using it for waterborne activities.

“I have not seen that,” Sosalski said. “That is not good.”

Sosalski said he’s waiting on new permits from the Department of Licenses and Inspections so he can move forward with fixing the problem. But L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said the department hasn’t received his application yet.

In the meantime, “Urban water sports enthusiasts may want to keep in mind that construction sites are private property,” Guss said. The city does not recommend wading in deep holes like this “for safety reasons,” agreed Philadelphia Water Department spokesperson Laura Copeland.

Kayaking as coping mechanism

A 2017 audit found that the Kensington’s 19124 zip code ranked eighth in the city for most homes sold in one year. Not all development is problematic, photographer Baumgarten said, but there’s plenty of shoddy construction in his community to go around.

Think of the hole-swimming as a coping mechanism.

“[Safety] really wasn’t a concern. We’re adventurous people,” said his friend Sarah Puleo, who lives a few blocks away on Cumberland Street. “This was more for the joke of how to interact with this hole in a way that makes a statement.”

That brave dude in the kayak? He’s not actually a Philly resident — he’s Puleo’s brother who was visiting.

Puleo and Baumgarten had been lamenting their local lagoon for months when she thought of a way to make some fun out of it.

“You look at it and you can see the stones at the bottom now. It’s clear,” Puleo said. “I was like, ‘I’m getting ready to kayak it at this point.’”

Bumgarten replied, “If you do that I”ll be there with my camera, one hundred percent.”

The two visited the accidental in-ground pool last week to carry out their plan. Puleo realized the 6-foot ladder she brought along wouldn’t be tall enough to get her to the bottom, so she asked her brother to try it instead.

“He’s adventurous, he’s very strong,” Puleo said. “He was able to get down there with his upper body strength.”


Waiting on permits — or waiting on new designs?

Sosalski offered an apology that the giant hole has lingered so long in the neighborhood — but he doesn’t think he deserves all the blame.

L&I confirmed that Sosalski had a geotechnical report done before he started construction, and it didn’t flag any issues about potential flooding groundwater. So the developer didn’t learn until after he dug the hole that it would be a major problem.

“The first day we found out it was a problem we got a whole engineering team on it,” Sosalski said. “Obviously nobody wants a half-filled construction site in their neighborhood.”

Sosalski said he had no idea neighbors had begun to use his site for fun. “This is the first moment that I was made aware of this,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to be in any sort of danger here. Obviously you can get hurt.”

Contractors advised him to lay some ground stone, then reduce the height of the basement and the first floor of the project, which is slated to welcome 19 apartments over five stories with a roof deck, plus a commercial space fronting the sidewalk.

But to do that, he’ll have to apply for permission from the city. Per city property records, Sosalski was last issued a permit in May to shore up the building’s foundation.

“Construction sites can become flooded but this much water in a large hole is rare,” Guss said. “As [a] consequence, structural and architectural plans must be redone. The project is on hold until design professionals finish this revision and submit for L&I approval.”

Sosalski’s first order of business: fix up the fencing around the lot, so no more recreation can take over the pop-up pool.

“This thing has been there for a really long time,” Baumgarten said. “Since the second they dug it, it’s been filled with water, which happens. But typically they’re not left that like that for this long.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...