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May 11, 2017

After a decade-long debate, Philly neighborhood will finally get new playground

Neighborhoods Parks and Recreation
Joyce Brady at McMichael Park Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Joyce and Jim Brady, and their four children, visit McMichael Park in East Falls. They're among the Fallsers who would like to see a playground installed at the green space centrally located in the neighborhood.

As last spring turned to summer, an age-old debate returned to the hillside Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls.

On one side of the proverbial aisle were residents who agreed with Joyce Brady, a mother of four who wanted nothing more than a natural playground installed in leafy McMichael Park. The location at Henry and Midvale avenues was markedly more accessible than other neighborhood playgrounds.

On the other side were people aligned with the Friends of McMichael Park group that takes credit for turning “six acres of overgrown and forgotten ground into a neighborhood gem.” To the playground opposition, such a move would change the character of a “passive” green space by inviting loitering, vandalism and increased traffic.

The sides aired their views during several community meetings, eventually drawing City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and representatives of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation into the mix.

Though the debate receded from the public spotlight over subsequent months, the future of the McMichael Park playground has again returned to the conversation again this spring.

This time, though, it’s all about positivity.

After months of behind-the-scenes work and meetings comes official news that the natural playground is a go. All that’s left to do is pick a final design and site within the park.

Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

McMichael Park in East Falls was at the center of a neighborhood debate involving residents who want a playground installed there and those who do not.

Alexis Franklin, a Friends of McMichael Park member, said stakeholders met with landscape architects and had an idea session – without designs or drawings – in April.

They discussed how best to maintain the open green space in the park’s “meadow area,” keep the McMichael Street side of the park “quiet,” improve turf, replace lost trees and keep the new development close to the existing turtle statue. (There was also a noteworthy demand: “No zip lines.”)

“We meet again at the end of May for site-specific visual concepts for review and feedback,” she told PhillyVoice on Monday.

That group of stakeholders examined eight possible architects for the project and collectively decided that Salt Design Studio – with locations in Center City and Bala Cynwyd – would design the playground, likely (but not definitively) to be installed near that turtle statue on the side of the park nearer to Midvale and Henry avenues.

A final design for the playspace will be selected at a June neighborhood meeting, with installation to follow soon thereafter.

“It’s all positive now,” said Brady of a once-heated issue that simmered down over the course of stakeholder meetings. “All sides are collaborating.”

Joshua M. Cohen, deputy chief of staff in Jones’ office, told PhillyVoice that the $29,201 cost of the design effort was covered by Fourth Councilmanic District capital funds. The construction cost is not yet known, he added.

According to the Department of Parks and Recreation, a funding source for the construction has not yet been identified. However, the community has discussed crowd-sourcing initiatives in the past. Cohen said the playground would likely be funded by a combination of capital and community monies.

“The project is progressing nicely,” said Cohen, noting the park's War Memorial will also undergo a $50,000 restoration project.

Coming next in the process will be another stakeholder session, a community survey and then a June neighborhood meeting at which a final design will be selected with installation to follow soon thereafter.

From there, it’s expected that McMichael Park will finally have its playground after a decade of debate.

“The natural play space is coming to fruition after city officials listened to the community and the young voices of East Falls who’ve been asking for this for 10-plus years,” Brady said. “It’s finally a reality, and every child in East Falls will have a playground within walking distance.”