Shovels outside Disston Recreation Center in Tacony in September 2019 (Rebuild)

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It will be a challenge, city leaders say, but Philly’s Rebuild initiative has the resources to complete the 72 playgrounds and rec centers currently on its docket. 

The prospect of additional projects for the Kenney administration’s signature public works project, however — which initially hoped to renovate 150 to 200 of the 400-plus eligible sites around the city — is at this point purely theoretical. 

Since the pandemic hit, groundbreakings have been pushed back, projects have markedly overshot their budgets, and planned reopening dates have come and gone. 

“I’m not trying to give them any excuses,” Antoinette Holliday, secretary of the Recreation Advisory Council at Kingsessing Recreation Center, told Billy Penn. “Because they keep using COVID.”

Distinct symptoms of the COVID-induced economic turbulence have shown themselves in the last three years, with fluctuating supply and labor markets bedeviling Rebuild’s pre-construction and construction processes. 

Just a few: Lumber markets experienced a sharp demand shock, leading to historic inflation; HVAC parts and installation services have seen a similar demand-induced frenzy; Shortages in aluminum and steel have critically impacted electrical paneling supply in an emerging reality where the demand for electrical workers also outpaces the supply.

Leaders at HACE, the community development corporation handling Rebuild projects in Fairhill, acknowledge that expanding construction timelines aren’t always easy to explain. 

“They’re uncomfortable conversations to have,” said HACE President and CEO Maria Gonzales, about relaying these setbacks to concerned neighbors. “But at the end of the day, we have to be honest with the community.”

When funding for Rebuild was secured with the passage of the sweetened beverage tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney and project leaders were optimistic about the potential pace of the massive redevelopment initiative. “This is just the first round of Rebuild sites,” David Gould, a former spokesperson, said in 2017. “We think it will be a six or so year program.”

Nearly six years on, a pandemic and its still unfolding economic aftershocks has changed the math. Current Rebuild officials — largely a different group than at the start — acknowledge that wasn’t a realistic timeline, pandemic or not. 

The program can only afford the 72 projects currently in the works.  

“I think it was an ambitious timeline,” Rebuild Executive Director Kira Strong told Billy Penn. “But the bigger piece, honestly, is the budget at this point: We will not have a budget.” 

The initial budget was reported to be $500 million. Now projections for Rebuild’s overall budget hinge on the strength of its fundraising operation, with a baseline of $425 million. That comprises a projected $300 million in soda tax returns and city capital funds, a $100 million donation from the William Penn Foundation, and Rebuild’s $25 million fundraising goal — which has already been exceeded, at $36 million and counting, according to Raymond Smeriglio, Rebuild’s first deputy and chief of staff.

Swoop, Mayor Kenney, Councilmember Johnson and community members help with the groundbreaking at Vare Recreation Center in June 2022 (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Despite all this, and in part due to the delays, 2023 is shaping up to be the busiest year in Rebuild’s history, with construction set to start on nearly two dozen sites, and ribbon cuttings scheduled for 14 locations. 

Among the biggest challenges for officials and project managers has been communicating the changing dynamics of the initiative. 

For Philadelphians living in the underserved neighborhoods Rebuild was designed to benefit, the hardest part is the waiting

When inflation guts funding, communication is key 

Staff and stakeholders at Vare Recreation Center in Grays Ferry could hardly wait for the century-old building to be demolished last fall. Structural damage had made the building unsafe back in 2017, and its use was limited. 

Carrying on without the building has turned out to be encouragingly straightforward. While the new Vare is being erected, the center’s multifaceted programming was been relocated across other rec centers.

“My expectations have been exceeded in terms of the way the city has been communicating with us, and Rebuild and MTWB [Make The World Better Foundation, the project manager],” said Yasmeen Porter-Abbott, president of Vare’s Recreation Advisory Council. 

“No one’s missed a beat in terms of jumping in and making sure if there’s anything we needed,” Porter-Abbott said. She described clear channels of communication, in part via group texting with MTWB and Rebuild staff.

The South Philly project broke ground last June, and is still on track, tentatively, to be finished at the end of 2023, per Porter-Abbott. Construction on Vare began as Rebuild emerged from its COVID slump, and could serve as a proof of concept for the program’s goal to complete construction in 1 to 1.5 years’ time. 

Working on and through the first 15-30 sites disabused Rebuild of their former notions about their capacity. Analysis of the last few years — along with professional help discerning the projected inflation percentages — has the team feeling like they’re on firmer footing. 

“We’re running at about 12% [inflation across Rebuild], but some things range higher, some a little lower,” said Strong, the Rebuild director. “We took those data points and extrapolated and applied that across our projects for 2023 to help us better gauge and plan.”

The lead up to that reevaluation of Rebuild’s budget was a struggle to access the funds in the first place. 

Bond-backed funds for Rebuild’s construction operation were frozen in legal limbo for the program’s first year as the beverage tax’s legality was argued in court. Once the tax received a favorable ruling in 2018, the Rebuild team took out a $81 million bond, started growing its staff of four and began moving forward.

A breakdown of funding sources from Rebuild’s project statement for last year (Screenshot)

To date, Rebuild has spent $70.7 million of that bond funding, and $89.7 million overall, according to Smeriglio. A second bond issuance is being prepared, requesting funds drawn from the PIDC-managed Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development. The additional funding, estimated as between $77 to $94 million, must then be approved by City Council

In Southwest, shifting timelines and disillusionment 

Community stakeholders at Kingsessing Recreation Center and Library feel like they’ve been waiting for Rebuild a very long time.

During a series of roundtable meetings held in 2017 and 2018, former District 3 Councilmember Jannie Blackwell described Kingsessing as a high priority site, one of the first where construction would begin. Those meetings were widely misinterpreted as the project’s formal community engagement process, which Rebuild didn’t actually begin until 2021.  

The project faced a non-pandemic delay in 2020, when plans for Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies to be the site’s project user were derailed by federal wire fraud charges against former executives (the case ended in a mistrial last year). 

Summaries of stakeholder meetings held with Kingsessing Parks and Rec leaders note that parts of the neighborhood had already “lost faith” in Rebuild at that point. 

“You said we’re on the list and say we’re gonna be number one, you take us off because of Vare,” Holliday said. “That’s understandable because it caved in, we’re not caving in. But we do need a roof.”

Last April, Rebuild shared renderings of the designs for Kingessing’s two projects, which were scheduled to be completed before the end of the year, with construction on the library supposed to start in 2022. 

Final designs are still subject to small changes, via what’s known as “add alternate” adjustments that swap in different versions of planned amenities based on what’s feasible in the wake of shifting costs, per Strong, who said her Rebuild staff works hard to communicate that caveat. 

Since Rebuild aims to create lasting improvements, the baseline priorities are nailing the basics, like core systems, roofing, windows, electrical paneling, and HVAC, according to Amanda Colon-Smith, Rebuild’s director of community engagement. From there, situations vary. 

“In a couple of cases, [changing prices] had us focus on what may be shared priorities,” Colon-Smith told Billy Penn. “What will we all have consensus and feel really proud of?”

The final designs for the Kingsessing rec center are still in the works, and construction on the library has yet to begin — though a notice to proceed was granted last week. 

The Kingsessing Library is closed, waiting for the Rebuild renovations to begin. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Community stakeholders, Strong suggested, “have lived in a city that hasn’t always been able to bring everything to the table, and I think they’re like ‘We understand, and how do we get creative about bringing the most we can to a site?’”  

But the shifting timelines have left advisory council secretary Holliday expecting less of Rebuild’s community engagement efforts.

“I believe that they just want to gather the information to say they did it, but they’re gonna do what they want to do,” Holliday said. 

She, like so many other volunteers in the Parks and Rec system, continues to serve because of the personal importance of the site and what it means to the community. To her and others in the neighborhood, disappointment with Rebuild align with wider, long held concerns about gentrification and lagging services. 

“Nobody wants to work for this place,” Holliday said of Kingsessing Rec. “Nobody wants to work for the city.”

Light at the end of the tunnel in Kensington

Harry Tapia, director of operations at HACE, has lately been on the receiving end of a recurring question: “When will the construction be done?”

The Rivera Recreation Center and Mann Older Adult Center had seemed to have a head start on other Rebuild sites. In 2018, renovation designs had already been drawn up and project architects had been selected. Construction looked likely to start in March of 2019.  

When ground finally broke in March 2021, the estimated construction timeline was 18 months. Two years later, the project is finally nearing the finish line.

“We’re looking at the end of May to have construction complete,” said Gonzales, HACE’s president and CEO — and pointing to the pandemic as an explanation isn’t hitting like it used to. 

“When you try to tell a resident, ‘Hey, supply chains, you know?’” Tapia said, “they’re like, ‘Yeah I know, but the rest of the world is getting back to it so why is it taking you a little longer?’”

The answer is no surprise: money issues and cascading hits to critical supply chains.

Budget worries began in 2019. After contractor bidding, it was clear the $10 million originally allocated wasn’t going to cut it. After going back to Rebuild to request more funds, while doing their own fundraising (including a grant from the Eagles for field equipment), HACE’s leaders ended up with $15 million to work with. They had a firm plan to push onwards…and then the pandemic happened. 

A primary issue was flooring: Anderson Flooring, a firm with which HACE had experience, went bankrupt, necessitating a search for a new contractor. Trouble didn’t stop there.

“For roofing material, the delay was a year,” said Tapia. “It was just the installation piece [slowing things down], but without the installation, you really couldn’t do anything.”

So HACE also switched roof contractors, and then had to rejigger who worked on the job, as there “needed to be roofers that were certified by the new supplier.” 

It’s a relief to finally see light at the end of the tunnel, said Gonzales.

“Every project has its own challenges, none as unanticipated as during the last couple of years. But I’m very happy that 2023 is going to bring completion,” she said. “I look forward to seeing how this is going to be a catalyst for other investments in the neighborhood.”

Will Rebuild be a priority once Kenney is gone?

Rebuild’s leadership also hopes the work to date serves as a catalyst for more — including more funding from the city. Meanwhile, they’re seeking money from other sources.

“We pivoted a couple years ago to really invest in great fundraising talent to come up with a fundraising plan, and to also give it a home within Rebuild,” said Smeriglio, the initiative’s first deputy.

Rebuild has been making increased use of the commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. In 2020, three RACP grants went towards Rebuild sites. In 2021, it was four. Last year, it was seven.

Wider corporate sponsorship is another element that’s been critical, Smeriglio said. 

For example: the Eagles and the Philadelphia Union have partnered with Rebuild on athletic amenities across multiple sites; a JP Morgan Chase-supported workforce development collaborative is active; and Live! Casino & Hotel’s just make a $750k donation to the Murphy Recreation Center project — an example of the site-specific assistance the team is increasingly looking to incorporate.

Still, Rebuild’s future remains amorphous. 

The looming question is whether the initiative will survive beyond the first round that was presented so optimistically in 2017. The funding mechanisms for Rebuild won’t disappear once the 72 sites on the agenda are done, but they would be in critical need of retooling. 

Rebuild officials are strongly in favor of finding a way to do more, and plan to make that clear to the people vying to be Philadelphia’s next mayor. 

Though mayoral contender Jeff Brown lobbied against the beverage tax as a business owner, and other candidates have marked out their disagreements, Strong isn’t overly concerned about the levy itself.

“The benefit is palpable enough in what we’re delivering to communities that my hope would be that a future mayoral candidate would be really excited to step behind the program,” she said. 

“I think we have a strong constituent report to keep this going so that there is that second round of sites,” Strong said. “I mean, the need is huge.”

Clarification: The headline of this story has been updated to indicate that Rebuild leaders never committed to or planned for a specific number of sites; the goal of 150 to 200 was aspirational.

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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...