‘Sculpting the land’ of Penn Park

Upon completion of the 24-acre Penn Park project, expected to occur this fall, pedestrians will have access to walkways and green space along the Schuylkill River, with the city skyline as a backdrop.

‘Sculpting the land’ of Penn Park

Upon completion of the 24-acre Penn Park project, expected to occur this fall, pedestrians will have access to walkways and green space along the Schuylkill River, with the city skyline as a backdrop.

Three footbridges will give them access to the site. One will be located at 30th and Walnut streets; another will extend out from the existing Paley Bridge, located behind Franklin Field; and a third will be connected to the Weave Bridge, which is situated on the eastern edge of the site.

Because all of the work on Penn Park must be done outdoors, crews have been dependent on the cooperation of the weather. January snows slowed down their progress, but Design and Construction Director Edward Sidor says Penn intends to “work with Turner Construction to come up with what you would consider a recovery schedule, if necessary.”

When the weather gets more stable, he says, “we’ll need to evaluate where we are with the project and what we’ll need to get done for the obvious completion date and come up with a completion schedule if we have to.”

Earlier this winter, the Paley Bridge was removed from the grounds to be refurbished with new decking, paint and lights, and is expected to be returned on March 12 or 19. In the meantime, crews are constructing a 100-foot steel footbridge extension that will lead into the park from north of the new tennis center. Steel for the Walnut Street pedestrian footbridge is also expected to be delivered this month.

Once the bridge work is complete, crews will begin to install the surface of sports Fields 1 and 2, and the infield of softball Field 3. That is expected to occur in May.

“That’ll really start to change the way the site looks,” says Mark Breitenbach, senior project manager with Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES).

Currently, crews are putting in the stone and sand drainage system beneath the fields. They are also erecting a great beam at the Field 1 site, which will anchor a removable air structure designed to shield athletes from the winter elements.

The tennis center, the softball field walls and the dugouts are also taking shape. Instead of consisting of poured concrete walls, at the contractor’s suggestion, they will be made out of Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE). The MSE walls, says Breitenbach, allow for a higher level of quality control in the design, since they are fabricated off-site, and have saved the University about $1.8 million off the cost of the project.

Beginning in mid- to late-April and running through early June, crews are scheduled to begin planting trees. Project Manager Marc Cooper says the site will have landforms that will rise 25 to 30 feet above the flood plain at their highest point, as well as a lower, wetter environment in the flood plain. The different environments will make Penn Park hospitable to a wide variety of trees, including London plane, honey locust, red maple, sweetgum, burr oak and dawn redwoods. Meadow grasses will also be planted on steep slopes facing the Schuylkill Expressway and the Amtrak railroad tracks.

The completed park will feature picnic tables and benches, as well as emergency phones, lighting and a security station.

“[Penn Park architect Michael] Van Valkenburgh had the concept of a true park type of environment, with not a lot of shrubs and fussy gardens,” says Sidor. “He truly wanted it to be lawns and beautiful specimen trees.”

Cooper adds, “For us, that means less horticultural maintenance. It’s a simpler landscape to care for. ... That was his vision, but we bought into it without any difficulty.”

Before crews could even begin to think about planting on the site, Sidor explains they had to bring in engineered soils for the plants, trees and sod because prior to this project, the site was a series of surface parking lots that covered layers of urban debris, concrete and even an abandoned sewer line.

When it is finished, the park will allow foot traffic to circulate through the area and onto campus in new, scenic ways, he says.

“People are starting to understand where things go now,” says Sidor. “You really see how big it is and how big these fields are and when you get down in there, you get a feel for how Van Valkenburgh’s idea of sculpting the land is really important down there. In part, it screens the highway, but it still maintains the view up to the city.”

Originally published on March 3, 2011