In 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency mandated the Philadelphia Water Department to modernize its flood control and sanitary runoff facilities along the Schuylkill River. In order to do that, the PWD would have to find a location capable of handling an underground storage basin holding up to four million gallons of water. PWD officials chose the lower portion of Venice Island, between Cotton and Lock Streets along the Canal in Manayunk. One small problem: the location was already home to a well used, but aging, playground and rec center.
As the rec center fell outside PWD’s jurisdiction, construction of the subterranean tank required a collaborative effort with the Department of Parks & Recreation (then Fairmount Park Commission), who oversaw the Venice Island Rec Center. They then hosted a series of meetings with the local community to determine the island’s future. At one such meeting seeking input for how best to rebuild—simply put back the basketball courts and hockey rink? program the space? try something new altogether?—a voice beckoned from the back, “we could really use a theater!”
That voice belonged to Tom Dignam. Philly born and bred, Dignam has the accent, the no-nonsense manner, and a knowing twinkle in his eye. A self-confessed “rec rat” who is now a Parks & Recreation employee himself, Dignam’s first turn on the stage was in the 1960s as an orphan in “Oliver!” a play staged as part of a Fairmount Park theater program. After falling in love with the stage as a street urchin, Dignam continued acting through high school and college. He even tried to make a living out of it, but he didn’t land the role of his lifetime until much later—and offstage.
As Parks & Rec’s performing arts coordinator, Dignam oversees hundreds of cultural programs, from after-school clubs to summer camps. Over the years, thousands of kids have passed through his programs, rehearsing in school auditoriums, city parks, even the Annenberg Center in University City. Yet, like Oliver Twist, they’ve never had a home to call their own. At the Venice Island meeting, Dignam saw a chance to float his idea. Others supported it immediately.
Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation, says that the community had wanted a theater as far back as the 1980s. When asked whether or not the neighborhood would also want a theater, Lipton invokes Field of Dreams: “if we build it, they will come.”
The plan itself, however, suggests a new community hub not only “because it is there,” but because it’s a well designed, multi-use site.
Building architect Joseph Powell of Buell Kratzer Powell explains that the 250 seat theater is designed to be much more than simply a performance space. Beyond a sizable lobby, two multi-purpose rooms are ideal for community meetings or classes. These will also serve as green rooms during performances.
The stage is equipped with a heavy curtain which, when drawn, can turn the proscenium into a rehearsal space. Powell says the rigging and lights will all be state-of-the-art and hopefully will become a didactic tool. “You know the School of Rock, where they teach kids to be rock stars?” he asks. “Well, I can see this as being a stage production school where you can teach kids how to run a theater.”
The theater, while arguably the star performer, is only one player in the new production of Venice Island. With offices a block and a half away on Shurs Lane, Andropogon is bringing its expertise to the project not only as landscape architects, but as neighboring stakeholders.
Andropogon landscape architect Jason Curtis explains that, from the rear of the performing arts center, layers of landscaped seating will step down from the building to create an amphitheater. On the main level, Venice Island will regain its basketball court, but also include plenty of flexible space with permeable paving, ideal for fairs and markets, or just a picnic and a frisbee toss. A children’s garden with a circular water feature and a sprayground are on the other side of the performing arts center from the flexible space.
More over, the landscaped areas are designed so that when heavy rain falls, “tree trenches” will help channel water away. Native vegetation also lines the steeply sloping banks down to the river, with deeply driven gabion mattresses (walls with caged rocks) in place to guard against flooding and erosion. On the southern tip of the island, details are being worked out on how to best suit a launch for kayaks and small boats below the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge.
The landscaping explores the relationship between Manayunk, Venice Island, the Canal, and the Schuylkill. It’s about flows of people, space, and water—an integration of all three. But the protagonist of lower Venice Island—the impetus for this massive project—remains largely unseen.
The only real sign of the underground storage basin is the three-story concrete pumphouse which will soon feature large windows and a green roof. It’s from here that the PWD employees manning the tank descend into the depths, the temperature drops a couple of degrees, and it’s dark.
At 400 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 25 feet deep, the underground storage basin is cavernous. Capable of holding nearly four million gallons of water, it will only come into use when water levels in existing sewers reach the point of excess. In that case, water is diverted into the tank and held until the flow of water in normal sewers drops back to a manageable level. The tank water is then pumped into a treatment facility, then back into the Schuylkill, and eventually out to sea. Air filters through the tank’s ventilation system will prevent the scent of sewage from escaping into the Manayunk atmosphere.
Business owners and residents hope that the tank will help alleviate the historically flood-prone area. One likely beneficiary is the Manayunk Brewing Company. Now in its 17th year of operation, the local craft brewery has seen its share of floods. In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought about Philadelphia’s worst flooding in years, leading President Clinton to declare Philadelphia and seven other Southeastern Pennsylvania counties disaster areas. More than six feet of the then-fledgling brewery was under water.
Manager Dylan Rose remembers that time. “We had only been open a few years at the time and didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “We left all our bottles in flood zones and when the water receded, everything had to be thrown away. Water even got into unopened bottles of wine…you could see the sediment floating in there.”
Rose says they’ve since learned lessons. When a big storm is brewing, they move the furniture into the upstairs bar, clear the ground floor of all consumables, and then wait out the storm. The cleanup still takes time and money out of the business. When Hurricane Irene came in 2007, they were closed for three weekends. The bar still has signs which show how high the flood waters got during Floyd and Irene—a badge of honor, if you will. “We know what to do when a storm hits,” Rose said, “but if the new tank helps, that’s money in our pockets.”
That new tank is currently undergoing tests, the responsibility of the Philadelphia Water Department. For Venice Island’s civic and social space, it’s a major improvement—and a major investment at $45 million. All of the funding comes from capital dollars—no state or federal funds. From the total $45 million budget, the tank and its related components (pumping station, piping, ventilation) tally roughly $30 million. The Performing Arts Center is around $2.8 million. The remaining $12.2 million goes to the parking lot, landscaping, and other site improvements.
The underground storage basin will come online later this year, once testing is complete and the EPA approves. The new Venice Island rec center, park, and performing arts space, all still works in progress, will open next year. The official ribbon cutting is slated for April 2014.