Disappearing Act

By Amy L. Webb

Public spaces are losing ground to developers.

The Fairmount Park Commission recently gave its approval for an apartment building with auto access planned for a tiny parcel of land behind the Rodin Museum, a move that has angered local environmentalists, urban designers and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which oversees the Rodin.

This isn't the first time the city has released a chunk of public land for a private venture. But this approval comes at a time when cities all over the country are struggling to weigh strapped budgets with ample park space and the would-be developers who are eager to build.

Years ago, developer Joseph Pacitti submitted plans to build an apartment complex behind the Rodin, which is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 21st and 22nd streets. The area surrounding the museum, which was designed by esteemed architect Paul Phillipe Cret, includes a public park and overlooks the Art Museum grounds.

The original design included a driveway stretching over Fairmount Park land to 22nd Street, which would have replaced a portion of Rodin Park with concrete slabs and cars. Though Pacitti secured the necessary permits and approval, Fairmount Commissioner Philip Price Jr. delayed a final decision last December in order to hold a public hearing.

Ahead of the Jan. 14 hearing, several groups, including Pew Charitable Trusts (which has funded a significant number of projects throughout the city), Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and the Art Museum submitted letters to the Park Commission's president, Robert Nix, urging new project designs. The Design Advocacy Group, an organization of local architects and urban planners who promote "high-quality" design (and who regularly contribute to Cityspace), also submitted a letter. "The sketches we have seen for the proposed apartment building suggest a project that would fall far below the standard of design excellence set by its neighbors," the letter states.

DAG and the Art Museum have concerns about maintaining a high architectural standard along the Parkway, which has become a destination point for tourists and design connoisseurs. "We are glad that developers want to invest in projects around the Parkway," says William Becker, principal at the Philadelphia-based Becker & Frondorf design consulting firm.

"We're concerned about how those projects will be designed. They should be designed by top architects and rise to the same excellence as the other buildings on the Parkway."

The Commission "agreed that the project should continue as planned," says Barry A. Bessler, Fairmount Park Commission chief of staff. "But the driveway will not cross over to 22nd Street. Instead, Hamilton Street will be used for access."

The land behind the Rodin is a depressed section of an old railway that now looks like a large trench. And, to be fair, the space has been vacant for years. Without leveling or topping off the area, little can be done with it, even recreationally.

While architects and urban planners are worried about the new apartment building's design, few people seem to be asking why the Park Commission was so readily willing to release part of a public space for private use, and why so many parks nationwide are losing ground to developers.

To wit: The Chicago Park District recently considered a plan to carve up a section Lincoln Park for the purpose of building a sports complex with bleachers for the semiprivate use of a nearby school. The proposal included replacing four acres of land with artificial turf, a running surface and a 4-foot-tall iron fence. In New York, proposals were being heard to auction blocks of community gardens to developers for new apartment buildings. In Oceanside, Calif., last December, city council members were discussing a plan to convert a park called El Corazon into a private golf course and beachfront hotel. Also last year, in Boston, a developer was working with town officials to adopt a plan to pave over 29,000 square feet of forested public land in Middlesex Fells for an office complex.

"Green space is so integral to urban areas," says David Masur, director for PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental organization. "On the environmental side, open spaces are important for things like drainage. Nature uses green spaces as a big sponge and stops areas from flooding. Research shows that green spaces help keep cities cooler during summer months. And we know that common space is important for building communities."

Masur also says that the green space along the Parkway creates a sense of well-being. "There is an inherent value in green space when people are in a city bombarded with traffic and big buildings. That's not to say that some cities aren't really in need of more housing. In those places, there has to be a push to develop on blighted areas before using the green space. Philadelphia is in that position now."

To be sure, the rest of Fairmount Park remains a well-manicured, functioning public space -- as do Washington and Rittenhouse squares. But what happens when a new developer comes knocking with plans for elaborate new offices or luxury lofts? The next time may not be just a sliver of a park behind a museum.


DAG Forum essays do not represent the opinion of the DAG Steering Committee, rather those of the individual authors, who seek to broaden our perspective of critical issues that require thoughtful responses.