Once the University had the land, the challenge shifted to implementing a design capable of accomplishing several goals that weren’t all in mutual alignment. First of all, the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics wanted more space—including some that could be adaptable for winter use. Second, Penn’s leadership wanted the new park to dovetail with the University’s Climate Action Plan [“Red and Blue Makes Green,” Nov | Dec 2009], with its goals for energy conservation and sustainable design. Third, the athletic fields and tennis courts would also need to coexist with un-programmed space intended to serve as a public amenity. Finally—and perhaps most trickily—the whole assemblage would need to fit into a space variously bordered or bisected by elevated freight-train tracks, a light-rail commuter line, the Schuylkill Expressway, Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, and streets situated 30 feet above ground level. 

As Matthew Urbanski puts it, making “a lyrical connection to the city, and improving access in an intuitive way” would involve “some real gymnastics.”

“The city wasn’t designed to provide those connections,” he explains. “It was actually designed to create separation, which is typical of a city as it evolves against a river, which were often thought of as backyard areas, if you will.  It was cut off by extra tracks, and the requirements of the roads being elevated because of flooding. So there was no latent reason why this would be an easy solution based on the previous industrial history of the site.

“But it seemed that although it was quite involved to make this engineering solution, where you come down with bridges and landforms,” he adds, “on the other hand it was a relatively minor intervention—minor in scale compared to the other elements there: the elevated tracks, Amtrak, and whatnot. And it could create this level of urban connection and discovery and convenience.”

The large but sinuous berms do double-duty. They provide connections to the Walnut Street bridge and the Paley pedestrian bridge, which leads to Franklin Field (and in another year or so, the forthcoming Al Shoemaker Green in front of the Palestra). They also divide what could otherwise be a pancake-flat expanse into distinctive zones with different focal points—the two synthetic-turf fields on the northern edge of the park (which were made from recycled materials); the 470-seat softball stadium (adaptable for other purposes); the 12-court Clay W. & Lynn B. Hamlin Tennis Center; and the general-use grass field at the southern end—while providing walkers and joggers with constantly shifting sightlines, from varying heights, toward the Center City skyline.

Executing the concept proved more difficult than initially imagined.

“When we started this job,” says Anne Papageorge, vice president of facilities and real estate and a landscape architect herself, “we thought that the soils could handle more loads than what they actually can handle. So it started to become expensive—very expensive—to support buildings, even though they’re small, and these landforms, because even though they’re dirt, they’re heavy.”

What Papageorge and the construction team discovered, in effect, was the industrial history of the site.

“There’s a whole layer of probably 15 to 20 feet of just urban debris,” she says. “And then [beneath that], there’s a layer of what we call dredge material.”

The dredge material extended inland from the river in what construction director Ed Sidor likened to fingers reaching into the site. 

According to Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center, these refilled trenches correspond to canals dug in the 19th century, when the west bank of the Schuylkill was a busy shipping terminus south of the Market Street bridge (which marked the upper boundary for cargo vessels).  Indeed, maps from 1872 and 1892 in the University archives show that some of the land here was owned by Franklin H. Delano, a great-uncle of the US president, and (among other things) a partner in a New York shipping firm.  

Prior to 1925, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began buying up most of it, this tract of land had supported a wide range of businesses. There were coal, stone, and lumber yards, a varnish works, and at one time a large factory that manufactured leaded paint. Many of these operations featured canals or wharfs. Collectively, they planted the seeds of an unexpected challenge faced by Penn Park’s construction team.

What with the deep layer of urban debris, and the similarly unstable sections of dredge material lying underneath that, you had to go anywhere from 25 to 55 feet down before you hit solid ground. So in order to support some of the key elements of the park—the massive berms, cisterns designed to hold 2.5 million pounds of water, the stadium and tennis complex—Papageorge’s team had to sink some 2,200 structural concrete piles into the bedrock.

Between those, the stormwater reclamation and irrigation systems, the underground electrical infrastructure (which supports energy-efficient lighting the University estimates will save 300,000 watts of energy per hour), approximately $12 million of the $46.5 million budget “went underground,” as the construction managers put it.

In the days between the park’s completion and its official opening, all the key players among Penn’s leadership were effusive about the result—especially given how gracefully it had weathered the hurricane.

Athletic director Steve Bilsky W’71, whose original dream for a field house proved to be insupportably expensive, sounded like a man who’d decided that his consolation prize was better than the jackpot. “The first thought was: If we’re going to do this after all these years, let’s do it as well as we can. So there’s a cost implication to that … Cost is always a factor, but we had one shot at this, and we wanted to make it as spectacular as possible.”

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COVER STORY: Penn Connected By Trey Popp
Photgraphy by Greg Benson

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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The distinctive “weave” bridge spans Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, right behind the 12 tennis courts.

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