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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Parkside neighbors and people who used the Carousel House rec center before it shut down got a chance to weigh in the new facility that will replace it.

Now closed and slated for demolition, the Carousel House was Philadelphia’s only recreation center designed for people with disabilities. City officials shuttered the building at first because of COVID, and then decided not to reopen it because lapsed maintenance made it unsafe. Its closure inspired a protest.

As part of the Rebuild program, the city has promised to replace it with a new, state-of-the-art facility that can serve people with disabilities as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

Rebuild officials are leading a community engagement process to get feedback as they design the new building. A Zoom meeting Tuesday night brought in close to 100 participants. Another happens in person Thursday night at Gustine Recreation Center in Wissahickon, where some Carousel House programs have been temporarily relocated.

“This is…a big night for what I hope is going to be one of the best recreation centers in the city, if not the world,” said Philly Parks & Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott-Lovell at the Tuesday night meeting. “There are so many other places you could be and things you could be doing tonight, and you chose to be here. That says so much about this project.”

Overall, stakeholders left the meeting optimistic.

“I thought it went well,” Tamar Riley, president of the Carousel House Advisory Council, told Billy Penn. “It wasn’t a lot of specifics, but they showed us a lot of pretty pictures and they asked us for our thoughts.”

The project is a major undertaking. Some of the proposals at Tuesday night’s meeting would double the size of the former gym and add two pools. Plans laid out new classrooms, locker rooms, a sensory room, a kitchen, multiple arts and crafts spaces, and a recreational loop where people can exercise with an overhead view of the gym.

All the ideas presented were suggestions, with nothing finalized, and Rebuild spokesperson Ray Smeriglio said the Carousel House replacement still doesn’t have an official budget.

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

Participants were eager to offer their thoughts on the new rec center, which is set to be finished in two to four years. In Zoom breakout rooms, some asked for the new playground to have more padding. Others implored Rebuild officials to keep the community farm outside — which they said helps feed people — but to make it wheelchair accessible going forward.

Drew Reid, a wheelchair basketball player who played games at Carousel House, suggested a sauna at the new site. He said it would be a huge help for people like him, who have brittle bones disease.

“It would be really key for me to sit in the sauna for 15 minutes before work,” Reid told officials.

Without the Carousel House, Philly’s disability community has been without a key resource. Only around 30% of the people who used to participate in regular programming, like music and ceramics classes, have actually tried the new location at Gustine Rec Center, said the Carousel House Advisory Council’s Riley.

West Philly resident Samantha Petty said her 8-year-old daughter Willa, who has multiple disabilities, used the therapy pool regularly, and swam there at least once a week.

The city directed Petty to bring her daughter to the West Philly YMCA, which has a wheelchair accessible pool. It’s working out OK — but it’s much colder than the Carousel House’s pool. Warm water helps her daughter move around easier.

“That was really important for her physical health,” Petty said. “It decreased her hospital stays and helped her maintain mobility. Once the pandemic hit, we lost that pretty quickly.”

Petty is cautiously excited about the new Carousel House. In the meantime, she’s struggling to figure out which other city rec centers have accessible features.

Through Rebuild, Parks & Rec leaders have promised to make more public spaces accessible. Its website has a filter for programs for people with disabilities — but not for accessible features throughout the system. Parks & Rec spokesperson Sarah Peterson said residents should email the department if they have other accessibility questions.

The next public meeting for the Carousel House will be later this spring, Peterson said.

“That’s a good first step,” Petty said. “But I’m really still looking toward, what are we doing while the Carousel House remains very hypothetical?”

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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...