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March 30, 2023

City's only rec center for people with disabilities expands to larger community with $35 million redesign

Carousel House closed in 2021 due to unsafe conditions; the revamped building is scheduled to open in 2025

Government Recreation
Carousel House Rebuild Brianna Spause/City of Philadelphia/Flickr

ReBuild, which is leading the $35 million redesign of Philadelphia's only rec center for disabled people, is accepting community and public feedback before its plans are finalized this fall.

According to Census data, Philadelphia has the highest disability rate among the largest cities in the United States. Much of the disabled community was historically served through Carousel House, the city's only fully accessible recreation center.

The Fairmount facility ran from 1987 until 2020, when city officials closed it due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. It was shuttered a second time in 2021, with officials citing unsafe building conditions. 

Now, three years after its initial closure, Carousel House is being resurrected through an estimated $35 million redesign project that will allow the center to live on and serve the entire local community.

When the center was shuttered in 2021, the city announced that the building would be demolished, sparking public protests. The site was later approved for an improvement project with Rebuild, the city's initiative aimed at fixing aging community facilities. 

Kira Strong, the executive director of Rebuild, describes the estimated $35 million makeover as an "adaptive reuse" project that will preserve parts of the original structure. The plans will more than double the amount of space for amenities and programming, retaining all of the amenities and features of the original Carousel House while expanding its reach to serve more Philadelphians. 

"The community that has been involved with Carousel for a long time were advocates for ensuring that all of the great programming would continue," Strong said. "That's everything from the pool to the basketball court, just better. There will now be two basketball courts outside and the pool, which was quite contained and small, will be much larger, with an area for activity and an area for laps with zero-step entry." 

Carousel House is primarily known for its wheelchair sports, including wheelchair basketball tournaments that have been held inside the facility's small gym for more than a decade. The new facility will repair the gym with two full basketball courts and enough space for accessible seating for players to transition between games, according to Rebuild. 

The plan also includes a lap pool and activity pool that can be used for therapy, classes or recreation. Other parts of the building will be dedicated to a multi-purpose space for programming or community meetings, a fitness room, a sensory room and spaces for art and ceramics. 

The revamped center, which will be built after organizers gut the existing building and make repairs, also includes a computer lab, an industrial kitchen, locker rooms and spacious bathrooms. Its lobby will feature a reception desk and ping pong tables for recreation, according to the latest concept designs. 

Strong said that the response from the disabled community and larger Parkside community has been positive, with residents excited to get back to the Fairmount facility. 

"There's been a lot of excitement," Strong said. "People have been confirming to us that we have heard their needs around an expanded basketball space, the use of the gym that's so important for a number of reasons. We've heard that the addition of the pool activity space with temperature regulation appropriate for therapeutic exercise was really welcome." 

Other Philly recreation centers' lack of accessible entryways and space have forced some families to travel to New Jersey to continue playing wheelchair sports while the Carousel House has been closed, the Inquirer reported. 

Still, organizers believe that by focusing on ways in which the new facility can honor its historic predecessor, the redesigned facility will be popular with residents once it reopens.  

Initial backlash over the decision to close and demolish Carousel House was rooted in the concern that city officials would replace the first-of-its-kind facility with a generalized recreation center, similar to those available throughout the city. The volunteer-run Carousel House Advisory Council, which includes former employees, neighbors, parents and people who participated in the center's programming, began organizing public protests in the summer of 2021. 

Its first demonstration culminated in protesters blocking off an intersection of Belmont Avenue and the Avenue of the Republic, where the original facility sat for 35 years, shutting down traffic for about 30 minutes, Billy Penn reported. 

City officials, particularly within the Parks & Recreation Department, have been increasingly advocating for rec centers that serve all communities, rather than limiting disabled residents to a single site.

In an op-ed for Billy Penn, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell wrote that "Parks & Rec joins disability rights advocates, educators, and recreation professionals across the country to work toward a parks and recreation system where all members of the community can access and enjoy recreation near where they live." 

In early 2022, the city released its Rec for All inclusion plan, with the goal of making 150 of the city's generalized recreation centers accesible to residents regardless of ability. The Carousel House redesign is being planned with that in mind, and will be open to residents of Parkside and the larger West Philadelphia community in addition to serving disabled Philadelphians. 

"Being part of Rebuild, we feel really honored to have this project as part of our program," Strong said. "We've been really impressed by all of the advocates — the disability advocates — and the fellows in East and West Parkside who have participated in the visioning of what this public space can be. It's certainly been a hard but positive conversation, with people really bringing their hopes and aspirations for what this building can look like and feel like in the future. We're really excited to be part of the vision of Carousel House moving forward." 

Strong said that Rebuild is hoping to continue community input sessions and design workshops through the fall before releasing the final project plan. Construction of the project is slated to begin in 2024 with the goal of opening the facility to the public at the beginning of 2025. 

Organizers with Rebuild will virtually meet with community members on Thursday evening to present the latest concept designs for the project and seek additional public input. For more information about the Carousel House redesign project and Rebuild's efforts, visit its project planning website