Penn Park takes shape beneath the surface

Before the above-ground sport fields, trees and public spaces of Penn Park are installed and ready to use, crews are making vast improvements and preparations beneath the surface.

Over the summer, workers began installing 1,200 concrete piles to support landforms on the 24-acre site. In addition, Penn is installing an innovative stormwater drainage system that will capture and reuse water—no small feat for a site bordered by railroad tracks, the Schuylkill Expressway and most recently, a series of surface parking lots.

Converting asphalt into greenery will have a significant impact on stormwater drainage, says Marc Cooper, project manager of design and construction with the Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES). Before Penn Park, most of that water would have run from impervious surfaces into the Schuylkill River. In accordance with the stormwater regulations of the Philadelphia Water Department, Penn will keep and use much of the water onsite, collecting it in an underground cistern and then pumping it out for irrigation. The stormwater will flow into the river only in times of extreme flooding.

As crews have been digging, Mike Dausch, executive director of design and construction for Facilities and Real Estate Services, says they have uncovered a large amount of underground concrete left over from the site’s use as an industrial location. In addition, crews found an abandoned sewer line from when the site used to house a road.

Workers are putting the pedal to the metal before freezing winter temperatures set in. “We’re pushing really hard right now to get as much done while we have good weather,” says Dausch. The massive project is still on schedule to be completed by the beginning of the Fall 2011 semester. At that time, the base park will be completed; the air structure over the soccer field designed to shield student athletes from the cold will be erected in November of 2011.

While the trees, grasses, shrubs and flowers won’t be installed until next year, crews are selecting and earmarking native plants for the site this fall. Cooper explains that native plants are more tolerant of regional climate conditions and extreme temperatures.

Because of the site’s complexity, FRES officials are continuing conversations with numerous city and private agencies, from the Philadelphia Water Department, the Planning Commission and utility companies, to the three railroads that border the site—Amtrak, CSX and SEPTA. “It’s got to be the most complex park ever built,” says Dausch.

Cooper and Dausch say negotiating the space near the South Street Bridge will get easier as crews working on that rebuilding project are scheduled to vacate the site in early December. The reopening of the bridge will also give student athletes easy access to the Hollenback Center and the softball and baseball fields.

Originally published on October 14, 2010