Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson, other officials, and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center

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After being without a fully operational rec center since 2017, Grays Ferry is poised to have one of the best-equipped in the city when construction finishes next year on one of Philly’s largest Rebuild projects to date.

With Eagles favorites Jason Kelce and Connor Barwin and community members helping out, officials broke ground this week for the new Vare Recreation Center, gearing up for $20 million in renovations that’ll bring new basketball courts and play space — plus an Eagles-funded turf field — to South Philadelphia.

“We’re so happy about today,” said Yasmeen Porter, President of the Vare Recreation Advisory Council. “We feel we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for this building to be taken down.”

Built in 1916, the longtime community hub will be completely demolished after being declared structurally unsound five years ago. That’ll happen “in a few weeks,” according to Parks & Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

At the planned relaunch next fall, not only will the building be new, but the grounds are being redone with fresh basketball courts, a different playground, and new landscaping and public art.

It’s a violence prevention effort, said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the representative for most who visit the center.

“Most of our young people won’t have the ability to go down the shore this summer,” Johnson said. “But they will have the opportunity, in the future, to have a state of the art recreation center and playground here at Vare.”

The whole project is being managed by the Make The World Better Foundation, a nonprofit that revitalizes public space and was co-founded by Barwin, the former Eagles linebacker who’s now the team’s director of player development.

“It’s hard, but I believe in long term solutions and I believe the long term solution is investing in our kids, in this environment,” Barwin said.

He thanked Mayor Jim Kenney for having a comprehensive plan instead of a “bandaid.”

Kenney created Rebuild in 2016 with the goal of reimagining and renovating the city’s rec centers, playgrounds, and libraries. Funds for Rebuild projects come from municipal bonds — debts which the Philadelphia Beverage Tax was created to service.

Very little soda tax revenue has actually been used for Rebuild purposes to date, according to a recent report from the City Controller’s Office. The Kenney admin says that’s partly because of challenges with getting the program off the ground, including a legal battle over implementing the tax, and, of course, COVID.

Making sure young athletes can fulfill their potential

Relocation plans are already set to keep programs running for the Vare community during the makeover, according to Porter, the advisory council president.

The Vare community is well prepared, because they already had to look for other options, back in 2017. That October a structural engineering firm hired by Parks & Rec evaluated the site, determined that its roof was unsafe — confirming what residents had known for years — and the center was shut down.

“There was no cameras, there was no politicians, it was just family members, parents, and very, very committed staff here,” Porter said. “And they were making it work.”

Porter had a daughter competing as part of the center’s hallmark gymnastics program at the time. The gymnasts, along with the center’s South Philly Sigma Sharks football team and Vare’s basketball team, were getting short shrift, in her view.

She knew there needed to be a change when she saw “youth members with talent that would get into the NFL, the NBA, USAG, but they didn’t have the building they deserved with the talent they were bringing.”

Gymnastics at the old Vare Rec Center, just before it closed in 2017 Credit: Jordan Gunselman / Billy Penn

When Vare closed, the gymnastics program had to adjust midseason, a shift that worked because of the diligence of staff, parents, and partners in the city, per Porter.

“During the shutdown, we were all over the place. We had to go to Kendrick [Rec Center], Temple a couple times a week,” Porter said. “Because USAG wouldn’t care that we didn’t have anywhere to practice, these girls still had to compete.”

Still, “everybody did it with a smile,” according to Porter, who said the family-oriented nature and faithful staff of Vare was why people came to the table with solutions, not complaints.

The same ethos carried over into community consultation with Rebuild, she said.

“When Rebuild came along they knew to make sure that whatever they said they were going to do, they did,” Porter said. “They kept their meetings, they engaged the community … when you see the Rebuild, that’s the community members saying what they wanted.”

What’s coming to Vare

Vare will be the site of a brand new rec center totalling 18,700 square feet, and will feature:

  • A 7,000-square-foot indoor basketball gymnasium with spectator bleachers
  • A 4,900 square-foot gymnastics gym with all new athletic equipment
  • A 900-square-foot multipurpose room that can be converted into two classrooms
  • Multipurpose space for community programming

Outside the center, renovations will include:

  • Two new outdoor basketball courts
  • A 1,500-square-foot outdoor classroom
  • Artificial turf football/soccer field
  • New spray ground
  • New 6,000-square-foot playground with spaces for 2- to 5- and 5- to 12-year-olds
  • New exterior lighting
  • New trees and landscaping
  • New Percent for Art installation
  • Relocated Indego Bike share station

One of Rebuild’s largest projects in size and scope, Vare’s future is roughly comparable to plans at Olney Recreation Center and Kingsessing Rec. For instance all three spaces are having a turf field installed on their grounds, and Olney, like Vare, is being completely rebuilt, while plans for Kingsessing include a completely new roof.

Olney, a $15.5 million project, broke ground last October, while Kingsessing is in final planning stages with construction due to begin late this year.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...