As you head into the meadow trails at FDR Park, one of the first things you’ll see is a giant mountain of dirt. Walk a little further and you’ll see other, smaller peaks, a series of dunes of dirt that start to look like the design for a film set on Mars.
The eyesore is temporary. The mounds of soil are part of the creation of new tidal wetlands, a crucial element of the park’s major redesign.
Activists who would rather the meadows area — a former golf course retaken by nature during COVID — be left untouched have been openly critical of the effort.
The 33-acre wetlands project, led by Philadelphia International Airport, is a leading part of the wide ranging renovations the South Philly park will see over the next decade.
The majority of other changes will be managed by the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which just received a $10 million grant from the William Penn Foundation to kickstart the detailed planning and design for “the nature phase.”
“That grant is transformative and is going to allow us to move pieces of that work forward really rapidly, so we’re very excited,” Allison Schapker, chief projects officer at the Fairmount Park Conservancy, told Billy Penn.
The new wetlands will make up most of the park’s southwest corner — indicated by hydrology studies as the most ideal location — to mitigate flooding of forthcoming nearby recreational fields. They’re also meant to offset the disruption of other wetlands that the airport’s $1.2 billion dollar cargo expansion project will entail.
But while it’ll eventually act as a flood prevention measure, the renovations caused unforeseen flooding of the park’s lakes earlier this year.
Messages scrawled on bridges, benches, and rails along the park’s trails read like breadcrumbs of opposition to the project.
“Save the Meadows” is a constant refrain, with insistence on the sanctity of nature scattered throughout. There’s a comparison to Atlanta’s Welaunee Forest written on a trail bridge, a reference to the forest currently embroiled in the controversy over the plan to build a law enforcement training center that’s been dubbed Cop City.
That southwest corner was historically the lowest part of the park. Various construction projects — including demolitions connected to the 1980s upgrade of the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant, per the FDR Park master plan — have changed that over recent decades.
After clear-cutting the area’s trees last summer, a steady stream of construction vehicles began relocating soil to the former golf course last October. The excavation will continue through the summer and is scheduled to be completed by mid-September, according to PHL Airport spokesperson Heather Redfern.
“The bulk of the soil will be moved to create the soil hill,” Redfern said, referencing Wildflower Hill, a slope that’s part of the park’s makeover. Planning for the hill suggests it will:
- Rise 36 feet above the floodplains, offering views of the skyline and South Philly
- Be riddled with wildflowers during the spring, and a great sledding spot in the winter
- Come complete with a slide at the hill’s peak
The tidal wetlands project is slated for completion in 2026. Scroll down for more pics of the current state of things.