A New Life For Old Fairmount Park

May 16, 2014 | by Bradley Maule


View from the short-lived (but soon to be replaced) dragon boat dock, a sightline that could include a proposed pedestrian bridge over the Schuylkill | Photo: Bradley Maule

View from the short-lived (but soon to be replaced) dragon boat dock, a sightline where a pedestrian bridge is proposed over the Schuylkill River | Photo: Bradley Maule

A few weeks ago, I went for the longest hike I’ve ever taken in a city: roughly 11 miles, from Mt Airy to Center City, and wholly within Fairmount Park. Between Carpenter’s Woods and the Race Street access to the Schuylkill Banks, I crossed traffic exactly twice: once at Ridge Avenue to leave the Wissahickon for Kelly Drive, and again on Falls Bridge to get to Martin Luther King Drive, where traffic was blocked off for Sunday. On a picture perfect spring day like that with cherries and dogwoods in full blossom, you’d have to be a crank not to love your park.

With a full slate of events spanning parks across the city, Love Your Park Week 2014 has given residents extra incentive to get into their neighborhood parks, from cleanups to picnics to Ted-inspired talks on Philly parks (which this writer participated in on Monday); it continues on this rainy Friday and through the weekend.

Love Your Park Week, the annual collaboration between the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy and the city’s Department of Parks & Recreation, is effectively a shrewdly timed awareness campaign meant to maximize spring beauty and spring cleaning momentum—and get people excited about the incredible asset Philadelphia still has despite decades of underfunding. As Chris Matthews, who recently emceed the Conservancy’s annual Centennial Dinner and fundraiser, put it on his show’s closing segment last week, “the need for outdoor fun and a few hours of beauty is more vital than ever, more of a human need,” specifically referencing the need for parks in underserved neighborhoods like his native Hunting Park—where yesterday as part of the festival Billie Jean King was on hand to dedicate new tennis courts.

Trails to the future | Trail plan via The New Fairmount Park

Trails to the future | Trail plan via The New Fairmount Park

The sentiment behind Love Your Park drove a year’s worth of planning and community engagement led by PennPraxis for the City’s Department of Parks & Recreation and the Conservancy. The result was a new park master plan, which was unveiled by Mayor Michael Nutter, Parks Commissioner Mike DiBerardinis, Conservancy Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell, and PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg to a huge crowd this week at Smith Memorial Playhouse in Fairmount Park. Titled The New Fairmount Park, the master plan’s central theme was connection: providing East and West Parks’ adjacent neighborhoods—Parkside, Wynnefield Heights, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion with bona fide connections that they’ve never had into the park, reconnecting streams and runs to the larger bodies of water they feed after centuries of human interruption, connecting trails with trails. Of the latter, old trails will be improved, and several new trails will be built, taking advantage of both natural and manmade rights-of-way—hiking trails alongside streams and biking trails on the old trolley bed, for example.

Being a master plan, it has big expensive long term components that will immediately scare off skeptics. Striking a large section of Belmont Avenue and building an altogether new pedestrian bridge over the Schuylkill River will without question draw scrutiny, and the words “redesign I-76” alone may induce panic. But the Expressway is set to be rebuilt anyway, and where say I-95 presents an impossible barrier to the Delaware Riverfront (the planned billion dollar cap notwithstanding), Kelly Drive is a much easier, and more importantly much cheaper, barrier to overcome to bring its neighboring North Philly neighborhoods down to the Schuylkill River.

But The New Fairmount Park, directed by PennPraxis’ Harris Steinberg and Andrew Goodman, smartly breaks the plan into short-term and long-term visions. The short-term items are the obvious, sensible starting points—accessible, actionable projects, many of which can draw from existing state and federal funds.

The thorough report, in the form of a 51-page, interactive PDF is HERE. Spending some time with it is highly recommended. Ambitious big-vision goals aside, many of the first steps are no-brainers, early action steps that could improve Fairmount Park overnight, including:

  • Installing a bike lane on Cecil B. Moore Avenue from Temple University to 33rd Street
  • You'd never know it, but a cobblestone path currently leads from Glendinning Rock Garden at Kelly Drive back under 33rd Street, where a simple at-grade railroad crossing could provide Brewerytown with a signature gateway into Fairmount Park | Photo: Bradley Maule

    You’d never know it, but a cobblestone path currently leads from Glendinning Rock Garden at Kelly Drive back under 33rd Street, where a simple at-grade railroad crossing could provide Brewerytown with a signature gateway into Fairmount Park | Photo: Bradley Maule

  • Repurposing little-used Brewery Hill Drive, leading from (upper) Girard Avenue to (lower) Kelly Drive, for pedestrians and bikes, renovating the stone stairs from the bridge to the drive, and installing a pedestrian-activated traffic light there
  • Creating an interconnected trail network: link existing trails like the Boxers Trail and cross-country trails near Belmont Plateau to new trails, specifically five new ones: river, rim, ridge, trolley, and creeks, each designed to make use of natural or manmade causeways already there
  • Extending the Boxers Trail: relatedly, improve the popular trail to include more of the East Park: Smith Playground, Sedgley Woods Disc Golf, the Discovery Center, and the meadow at The Cliffs
  • Carving new viewpoints: newly constructed overlooks at strategic locations like a new trail along the rim of the decommissioned East Park Reservoir and George’s Hill near the Mann Center provide vistas of the park’s finest asset in all four seasons, is natural beauty
  • Providing noticeable and vibrant neighborhood gateways through things like public art along the edges of the park in Strawberry Mansion, Brewerytown, East and West Parkside, and Wynnefield Heights
  • Repurposing the bed of the old Fairmount Park Scenic Trolley for bike/hike use, connecting the new Pump Track, Belmont Plateau, the Organic Recycling Center, Chamounix Mansion and others, giving new opportunities for discovery of hidden relics within the park
  • Elaborating the connection to other existing and planned trails like the Schuylkill Banks, Cynwyd Trail (soon to cross the iconic Manayunk Bridge), Falls Bridge and the Wissahickon Gateway, and the Mantua Greenway
    Connectivity. Accessibility. Making a 19th century gem a 21st century asset. They’re the recurring—and easily attainable—goals of The New Fairmount Park. The long-term items will in fact require more debate and, certainly, more money. The short-term items need our attention now. So let’s get started.


    About the Author

    Bradley Maule Bradley Maule is a former co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland (Oregon), Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.


    1. DCL says:

      I realize this is nitpicking, but how did you get from Carpenter’s Woods to the Wissahickon without crossing traffic at Wissahickon Avenue? If there’s a way to do it I wanna know!

      1. Bradley Maule says:

        Nah, it’s not nitpicking. (You’re not supposed to, but) You can walk through the culvert under Wissahickon Avenue. For the sake of the story I guess I was counting the trailhead into the Wissahickon at the foot of Mt Pleasant Avenue, where Carpenter’s Woods turns into the Wissahickon Valley of Fairmount Park.

        1. DCL says:

          Heh. Took a look at that culvert on my walk yesterday; walking through there is a bit hardcore for me. Aside from being full of moving water, can you even get back on the trail on the Wissahickon side after that? It’s a pretty steep slope!

          I cross from Carpenter’s Woods to the trailhead on Mt. Pleasant regularly, but you definitely have to cross Wissahickon to do it. My least favorite part of my regular walking route.

    2. Vieux Pays says:

      Here’s an idea for Phase 1: How about just publishing an accurate, detailed map of the Park?
      Nothing really exists that is comparable to the map of the Wissahickon Valley published by Friends of the Wissahickon. For example, the City created a 5k bike loop in West Park in the last 5 years, but God help you if you try to find a map of it online.

    3. Kim Alsbrooks says:

      Try fairmountparkmap.simdif.com. This is a map created this year which is fairly detailed and focuses on the accuracy of bike paths, side paths, ect. For ease in biking through Fairmount Park. It’s only available as a map print but a pocket map version will be out in about a month.

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