Broken heater shuts down Kingsessing Rec Center after a month of repair delays

Programming has been temporarily relocated. The community hub in Southwest Philly is on the Rebuild list for an HVAC overhaul.

Kingsessing Recreation Center at 4901 Kingsessing Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia

Kingsessing Recreation Center at 4901 Kingsessing Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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A broken heating system at Kingsessing Recreation Center has led to a temporary closure of the Southwest Philadelphia hub, with all programming relocated to other facilities as of Monday.

Staff and community members at Kingsessing had been trying to keep things going despite winter weather, using space heaters for after school programs and running adult classes in the cold. After a reporter began asking about the situation last week, the city made the decision to shut things down.

Community members noted the lack of heat isn’t a new problem at the century-old building.

“It’s been messed up since 2000 and it’s been off a couple times. This time is really bad because it’s really cold outside,” Constance Crews, president of the Kingsessing Recreation Advisory Council, told Billy Penn.

From Dec. 20 to Jan. 21, fitness instructor Cantrell Fletcher taught in the cold — something he said he’s used to doing.

“I’ve been doing the fitness class since 2014,” said Fletcher, “and I think the heat, probably for the last three years, went down on me.”

The city is aware of the issue and is waiting for a replacement circulating pump to complete the repair, according to Philadelphia Parks and Recreation spokesperson Maita Soukup, who said the department “has observed delays in receiving parts and supplies, including electronic components needed to repair HVAC systems.”

Pandemic supply chain disruptions have hampered HVAC production around the globe. But COVID-era explanations for problems that predate its spread don’t assuage community members involved with the facility.

“Here’s the thing, once it gets warm this is going to be out the window again. They’re going to push it back and we’ll be in the same situation,” said Antoinette Holliday, secretary of the Kingsessing advisory council.

For now, afterschool programming and fitness classes have been relocated to 48th and Woodland Playground, while basketball and skating programs will be held at Myers Recreation Center, according to an update posted to Facebook.

Rec center upgrades are a central focus of Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature Rebuild capital investment program. Kingsessing’s historic building is on the list: it’s due to have its HVAC system completely replaced, according to Soukup, with construction expected to begin in late 2022.

A horizontal space heater is set up next to the stereo in the rec center gym

A horizontal space heater is set up next to the stereo in the rec center gym

Jordan Levy / Billy Penn

From strained supply chains to strained trust, the situation at Kingsessing reflects the challenges of trying to keep programs active during times of uncertain logistics and tight resources.

Built in 1916 on a plot of land that was once the Belmont Cricket Club, Kingsessing is one of the oldest recreation centers in the city, with a rich history of athletic and educational programming. The neighborhoods that surround it have lower median household incomes than the city average, and have dealt with a recent upsurge in gun violence, with total shootings nearly doubling from 2019 to 2020.

Operations mostly run without issue through the spring, summer, and fall, Recreation Advisory Council members said. But when winter comes, program leaders and staff have repeatedly run into the risk of operating the center in the cold.

Not all activities at Kingsessing Rec were enduring a complete lack of heat.

An afterschool program took place in a room warmed by space heaters, which were the only heating option the center had once the system went down. Most of the heaters were provided by the city, according to spokesperson Soukup, while others were donated by former Kingsessing recreation leader Robert Jackson.

“I thought it was more important to … wait for the part that’s needed to fix the system,” said Jackson, who now works elsewhere in Parks & Rec, “versus either shutting the building down or not allowing people to come and have a safe place to recreate.”

After a month of using space heaters, however, the city reversed course and shut down the facility, citing the continued cold weather and delayed part.

A space heater being used for warmth at a Kingsessing Rec Center desk

Space heaters were donated by a former Kingsessing Rec program leader

Jordan Levy / Billy Penn

Rec centers have proven to be crucial resources during the pandemic, a principal reason why staff have continued to keep as much programming afloat as possible. But concerns about uncomfortably cold temperatures also come into play.

“We have children in here, somebody’s children,” stressed Holliday, the council secretary. She said attendance had noticeably dropped.

“You went from having on an average day, between 50 and 75 people in the boxing gym to today, with the heating situation, we’re down to maybe a handful of people that are still willing to come and train until we can get this problem solved.”

Jackson, the Parks & Rec staffer, is hopeful that with the forthcoming Rebuild renovations, this cold period will end up being little more than a blip in the positive impact of programming at Kingsessing.

“We’re just trying to continue to work through it,” Jackson said, “and maintain our connection to our programmers and our program providers so that once we get the heater fixed, we can kind of pick up where we left off.”

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