Art Museum’s ‘Oval’ to become permanent park, many other Philly public spaces advance

From the Schuylkill Crossing to Graffiti Pier, there’s lots of progress planned for this year.

The pop-up Oval installation in front of the Art Museum is set to become permanent

The pop-up Oval installation in front of the Art Museum is set to become permanent

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Might as well vote Philly as the No. 1 City to Kick Your Feet Up and Relax in the Sunshine. This city is home to some of the best urban parks in the entire world, and the list is set to keep growing.

Projects on tap to make progress this year include the permanent activation of the public space in front of the Art Museum (home to the Oval pop-up), plus a reimagining of a storied pier, a bridge across the Schuylkill, new pools and playgrounds, and more.

Last year, Philadelphia jumped up nearly a dozen spots in the Trust for Public Land survey of the best park systems in the nation. Released by a San Francisco-based nonprofit, the report credited Rebuild, Mayor Kenney’s initiative to overhaul citywide parks, rec centers and libraries, as responsible for Philly’s ascension.

That adds to the 10,200-acre network making up the largest urban park system in the nation. Massive swaths of green like Awbury Arboretum, Bartram’s Garden and the Wissahickon offer sprawling trails and babbling waterways that make you forget you’re in a city.

Then there’s unexpected spots like Spruce Street Harbor Park. Opened in 2014, it’s been named one of the top urban oases in the world and continues to be lauded nationally. The team behind it, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, also redeveloped Cherry Street Pier.

In 2020, it’s getting even better. We’re capping a giant highway with a playspace, for goodness sake — and that’s just part of what’s coming this year in public spaces for Philadelphia.

Get ready for a redesigned Eakins Oval

It’s early in the planning, but Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is slated to become a permanent public park, according to Parks & Rec spokesperson Alain Joinville.

Since 2013, the space has transformed each summer from a bare, asphalt parking fixture to a colorful, enlivened family entertainment zone called “The Oval.” Riding the wave of pop-up installations, the city created the activation with the goal of making Ben Franklin Parkway “more park, less way.” During the warmer months, the urban island facing the Rocky Steps has been filled with attractions, from movie nights to mini golf and beer gardens.

In 2018, the Oval extended further down the parkway and became the Oval+ with larger scale attractions and more consistent programming.

The city is in the preliminary stages of feeling out the concept, and will issue an RFP and hope to select a firm this year, Joinville told Billy Penn.

Connector projects along the Schuylkill

Viable outdoor spaces and foot-traffic-accessible pathways connecting Southwest Philly and Center City have long been lacking. That’s set to change with the Schuylkill Crossing project, which will link Grays Ferry to Bartram’s Mile via a new swing bridge over the river. Work on the $13 million project was slowed by federal government bureaucracy, but after a nearly five-year process, the connector should be open for business this year.

Additionally, Bartram’s Mile Fishing Pier on 49th Street in Southwest Philly is awaiting a feasibility study. That should be released in January, a spokesperson told Billy Penn. In the meantime, the organization is fundraising for rehab on the pier near the Bartram’s Mile entrance. Work on that project should kick-off in 2021 and will include an ADA accessible ramp, street lights and a seating area.

A new trail for Grays Ferry

A pedestrian-friendly Christian-to-Crescent trail extending the Schuylkill Banks will create a walkway linking Center City to Grays Ferry with a series of land paths and cable-stayed bridges.

Final design for the off-road trail should be completed this summer with construction set to begin in late 2020. The $12 million addition should be done sometime in 2022 according to a spokesperson.

Progress on Graffiti Pier

Calls from vocal urban explorers helped get this urban ruin-turned-Instagram hot spot on the way to becoming a future public park. Property owner Conrail is working with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation on the planning stages, and will eventually turn the land over to the public-private nonprofit.

At a public meeting in November, Graffiti Pier landscape designers Studio Zewde heard stakeholder desires to keep the space open to street artists and possibly host events.

There are two more meetings planned for this year, after which work will get underway.

Old City’s new greenspace

A site near 3rd and Market has long served as a nondescript walkway for community residents and nearby business people. Folks started to notice an uptick in signs of drug use at the site, so community nonprofit Old City Green has plans to revitalize it. The nook is slated to host a sit-down area and a mini park enclosed by rounded wooden benches.

Stakeholders hope the upcoming renovation will quell drug use in the area. A spokesperson for the Community Design Collaborative, which designed the improvements, said the agency hopes for a 2020 start date.

A rendering shows the re-imagined walkway near 3rd and Market streets known as Commerce Street

A rendering shows the re-imagined walkway near 3rd and Market streets known as the 300 block of Commerce Street

COURTESY OF THE Community Design Collaborative

New pools and playgrounds

Rebuild, the Kenney administration initiative ostensibly funded by the soda tax, will bring several new projects to fruition this year, according to city spokesperson Maita Soukup.

A multi-sport athletic field at Parkside Evans in the West Philadelphia Parkside neighborhood will be open to nearby youth and adult leagues. The $600,000 green space was completed in the fall and will open for public use in the spring. Moss Playground, a $1.1 million playground with basketball courts, children’s equipment and an adult fitness area will open in Wissinoming in the spring, too.

Returning this year is a $3.5 million “Swimmo,” a pool and spray ground, at Fishtown Rec Center. The beloved neighborhood watering hole hasn’t been in use since the 2016 summer season but will be resurrected thanks to Rebuild. Originally, the pool was supposed to be ready for play in time for 2019 summertime.

FDR Park’s $200 million flip

FDR Park is more than 100 years old, so it’s no surprise that reviving the spacious grassland will cost nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Fundraising is still underway.

Known as the Central Park of Philadelphia, FDR is set to receive several eco-friendly additions like elevated boardwalks over the park’s Olmsted lakes and a 40-acre wetland habitat. There will also be picnic areas, a man-made hill for skyline views (and snowy sledding), added tree canopies, kayak rentals and food concessions added over the next decade.

What won’t be altered is the renowned DIY skate park, which operates individually and maintains its own ongoing GoFundMe.

The Fairmount Park Conservancy is kicking off the project with $15 million for Phase 1, including a park plaza leading from the Broad Street Line at Broad and Pattison, a Conservancy spokesperson said.

Expansion at South Philly’s Columbus Square Park

The Department of Parks and Recreation is helping oversee this $2.6 million renovation, which will expand the existing greenspace between Wharton and Reed and 12th and 13th streets.

Some of the changes are big, like a new community lawn space and a patio-style set up along 13th street, a city spokesperson confirmed via email.

I-95 cap park

Construction on Philadelphia’s long-awaited cap park over 1-95 on the Delaware River is set to begin in 2021. Before then, there’s much work to be done on the space.

In spring 2020, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation will host a public meeting about the park’s design and uses based on public survey responses, said Director of Planning Karen Thompson. There will also be continued online and in-person community engagement efforts through the year, with physical design renderings released before construction begins, Thompson said.