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With the opening of Penn Park in September,  the University’s eastward expansion is now a reality. A brief history of what it took to transform this long-sought dead zone into an oasis.

BY TREY POPP


On the morning of August 28, as basements across West Philadelphia whirred with the low drone of sump pumps, Penn President Amy Gutmann made her way to the nascent athletic fields and grassy hillocks of Penn Park.

It had been a very wet end to the summer. Two days earlier, Philadelphia had broken its all-time record for precipitation in a single month with 13.6 inches of rain. Then Hurricane Irene hit, dropping nearly six more inches in about 12 hours and raising the Schuylkill River to its highest level in 140 years.

Penn Park, which was scheduled to open about three weeks later, lies in a floodplain. The saplings that crowned its gently sloping berms and dotted its low-lying hollows—London plane trees and honey locusts, willows and bald cypress, cedars of Lebanon and Kentucky coffee trees—had already suffered four or five heat waves since being planted in June. Now they’d been through a night of root-drowning torrents driven by 50-mile-per-hour winds.

So it’s hardly surprising that Gutmann’s voice was still tinged with relief and excitement when several days later she recalled her post-storm tour.

“All 530 trees were not only standing but looking healthy,” she enthused. “Our state-of-the-art drainage system had obviously worked,” she added, referring to the permeable playing fields, engineered subsoils, and a network of cisterns designed to capture and reuse rainwater for irrigation. “It was put to the ultimate test with Irene far sooner than we could have ever expected, and it passed with flying colors.”

Two weeks later, amidst a sudden cold snap that did little to discourage students, staff, and city-dwellers from streaming into the new 14-acre expanse, Gutmann snipped the ceremonial blue ribbon signaling Penn Park’s grand opening to the public. On one of the synthetic-turf fields nearby, one group of students fired shots at a soccer goal while another played a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee. On the second field—another vast expanse capable of accommodating women’s lacrosse, which has the largest field in NCAA sports—the women’s rugby team took over the northern portion, leaving the southern half to cricketers and club baseball players. At twilight, as if on cue, the sky cleared and became a limpid lavender backdrop for a giant double-rainbow.

It had been not quite two years since University leaders gathered under a tent pitched more or less on the same spot—which at the time was still the same decrepit asphalt parking lot long controlled by the United States Postal Service—for a ceremonial groundbreaking. In between, four months of demolition and another 18 months of construction had transformed that forbidding void into an unlikely oasis. But in fact, the creation of Penn Park is a story many more years in the making.


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COVER STORY: Penn Connected By Trey Popp
Photography by Greg Benson
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Left: The park’s 530 newly planted trees weathered the city’s wettest August on record—and Hurricane Irene. Above: Opening day. Below: The playing fields offer lots of room to run, plus striking Center City views.

See a slideshow of photos from Penn Park Field Day on September 17,
part of the park’s opening celebration, at penngazetteblog.com

 


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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/28/11