A young player of Katie’s Komets, a co-ed wheelchair basketball team, at a July protest to save the Carousel House

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The Carousel House will be demolished. City officials confirmed on Thursday afternoon that despite months of advocacy and a public protest, Philadelphia’s only recreation center designed for people with disabilities will be torn down.

There was some good news for the Carousel House Advisory Council, whose members sat down this week for a roundtable discussion with half a dozen Parks & Recreation staffers.

Officials are promising that because the new rec center planned in place of the dilapidated Carousel House will be much larger, they’ll bring back all the original disability-focused programming — alongside activities for other residents.

That information came as a huge relief to the advocates. It  alleviates one of their central concerns with the pending teardown: that Philadelphians with disabilities would lose one of the few public spaces where they can meet each other and feel welcome. 

“As long as the same programming will be there at that location, I feel optimistic about it,” said Tamar Riley, president of the Carousel House Advisory Council. “New is good.”

She expressed concerns over timing. “But can we hold them accountable? Are these programs really going to come back? That’s my worry.”

The community engagement process for the new rec center will start this fall, according to Parks & Rec spokesperson Charlotte Merrick, who said Carousel House stakeholders would be invited along with neighborhood residents. But it’s unclear how long construction on the new facility will take. 

In the meantime, not all of the disability programming has found a temporary home. Some of it — the bulk of the wheelchair activities — has been relocated outside the city to New Jersey. 

“They do not have a site within Philadelphia for that,” said Riley. “But they are supposed to be actively looking.” She and other advocates are refocusing their attention on making sure no one is left out.

Over 100 people gathered in July to protest against the city’s plan to tear down the East Parkside rec center Credit: Emily Cohen / WHYY

Faraway programs and uncertain timeline

The Thursday afternoon meeting was attended by district Councilmember Curits Jones, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott-Lovell, and other city employees, advocates told Billy Penn.

Officials restated what they’ve been saying all along: the Carousel House’s East Parkside building is beyond repair, and would need a new roof, HVAC system, and dehumidification system, plus other repairs to the steel structure and the pool, in order to safely welcome guests again. Taken all together, it’s cost prohibitive. 

They were not able to offer a timeline for completion of the new building, aside from Rebuild starting its community engagement process in the fall. 

Construction on a city recreation facility can be lengthy. It took two years to finish the “mini soccer pitch” at Myers Rec Center in Southwest Philly, and five years to reopen North Philadelphia’s Winchester Rec after it was unstaffed in 2015. 

That’s what concerns Mike Martin, treasurer of the Carousel House Advisory Council. If the facility isn’t ready under Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, he worries the next one might abandon the plan.

“I’m disappointed,” said Martin, who uses a wheelchair, “given the budget constraints of the city, and Parks & Rec’s longstanding history of saying one thing and not fulfilling promises.”

For now, the following Carousel House programs have been relocated to Gustine Recreation Center in East Falls, per Merrick:

  • Special population basketball
  • Arts & crafts
  • Ceramics
  • General day programming
  • Day programming for the visually impaired
  • Music program

To substitute for the Carousel House’s pool, Parks & Rec added assistive equipment to the pool at the West Philadelphia YMCA.  The adult wheelchair basketball league, the junior wheelchair basketball league, and wheelchair rugby — all run by Magee Rehabilitation — have been moved to a site called RiverWinds in Deptford, NJ. 

Parks & Rec officials say they’re currently touring facilities to figure out which one could host wheelchair sports. And Riley, of the Carousel House Advisory Council, said they’ll be keeping a close eye.

“They did recommend we have another meeting to finish our discussion,” Riley said. “So we’re going to follow up on that…to see if they actually do reach out to our wheelchair users to work with them on finding a suitable place.”

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...