On the bright sunny day of the 3rd Annual Fishtown Fishing Derby, AJ Thompson, president of the Friends of Penn Treaty Park, ran around the park, handing out fishing poles to kids who didn’t have their own and checking in on the entrants to measure the fish they had caught.
Despite the busy schedule, Thompson, who’s in his fifth year as President of the Friends, was glad to see so many people at the park.
“I’ve always had an affinity for the park,” he said. “It’s always been a great part of the neighborhood.”
The park is built on the site where William Penn supposedly met with the Delaware Lenni-Lenape Indians just north of Penn’s Landing, where Fishtown is now. At this site, Penn and the Indians agreed upon a peace treaty under an elm tree. Although this treaty may or may not have happened, it has gone down in history as the only treaty never broken between the settlers and Native Americans.
The “treaty elm” was knocked down in 1810,and the Penn Society replaced it with an obelisk in 1827. The area became part of the Fairmount Park in 1894 and expanded further during the 1980s after taking over the former industrial site next to it.
Throughout its history, Penn Treaty has remained a big part of the Fishtown community. Thompson has visited the park with his family since he was young. He remembered using the pier at the part that once jettied out into the Delaware.
“There used to be a great pier here where a lot of people used to fish, including members of my family,” he said. “I probably fished my first fish [here].”
The pier is now gone, but in its place is a spot for where fisherman and park visitors can walk right up to the water’s edge.
This feature was one of many that the Friends of Penn Treaty and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department hoped to improve soon.
Over the past couple of years, a master plan for Penn Treaty was drawn up by the Philadelphia architecture and landscaping firm, Studio Bryan Hanes.
The designs included plans to give Penn Treaty a “soft edge,” replacing the current rocky shore with smoother stones and vegetation. There was also a new playground along with LED lights and a new storm water infrastructure, in hopes of bringing more wildlife to the area.
Bryan Hanes was careful to keep the community in mind when throughout the process of designing the plans.
“It’s been a park for most everybody’s life,” he said. “There’s a community down there that knows it and loves it. They like what they know. They want things to be improved.”
The designers also kept the history in mind.
“We wanted to sort of reflect the spirit of some of the Native American values as well as the Quaker values of respecting the earth and stewarding its resources effectively,” said Brenna Herpmann, one of the architects at Studio Bryan Hanes.
But the biggest factor was the river itself.
“It’s sort of a complicated site just because there’s the river there, so structurally it’s pretty complicated,” said Herpmann, “Part of the design is to cut in the landscape a little bit and allow that tidal flow to really show a little bit more and have people understand it in a different way.”
The issue of the river and its tides came into play most recently when some changes were made to the master plan. As the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation developed their plans for the entire stretch of waterfront, the plans for Penn Treaty evolved as well.
In December, Penn Treaty received $100,000 out of the $38 million of grant money given out by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Recreation and Conservation. Another Delaware riverside park, Pulanski Park in Port Richmond, also received money for renovations.
The money was put towards renovating the playground portion of the park. But the original plans had the playground at a low point. To avoid frequent flooding of the equipment, Friends of Penn Treaty and the Parks and Rec Department worked in conjunction to come up with a new design for the playground.
The new designs were created by Deborah Cahill, the landscape architect and project manager for the Department of Public Property. The plan includes play structures for tot and junior sections, a swing set, stepping stones and a safety surface made of recycled plastic material.
The project received an additional $200,000 from the Department of Parks and Recreation, Penn Treaty Special Services District and the Friends of Penn Treaty Park.
Thompson has high hopes for the playground, which will be moved west towards the obelisk to avoid the flooding, and believed it would break ground sometime this year.
“We’re hoping to make it a destination playground, sort of like what they have at Franklin Square and other places,” he said. “We are seeing a huge uptick in people coming down here . Not that it wasn’t used before, but I think people outside of Fishtown are using it now, which is a good thing. I think this will bring even more people down here.”
According to the developer, Bryan Hanes, the plans won’t change much.
“We hope that any of the master planning work we do is flexible to that extent,” he said. “If things need to move around a little bit, then they can. So there’s no issue with relocating it to deal more specifically with the exact location of some of the trees and low spots on the site.”
The timing of the renovations of the park overall will depend on how much funding is available. The plans are estimated to cost $8.5 million overall.
– Text, photos and video by Jesse Bellosi and Nicole Soll.