Now that court has ruled, a resurgent Rebuild selects Harrowgate playground for rehab

In the background of a Monday press conference at Heitzman Playground in Harrowgate, where city officials announced another site for Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative, a slogan painted on the old Sterling Paper Co. resonated with the moment: “There’s no clock when it’s time to fly,” read the words on the factory building, an artifact of the neighborhood’s industrial past.

For the last two years, the clock has been stopped on Rebuild, largely because of the prolonged lawsuit challenging the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. But it has started up again, and on Monday Heitzman became the first facility to be selected for what is anticipated to be a $500 million investment in the city’s parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries following last month’s pivotal decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to uphold the tax, which is inextricably tied to the funding puzzle of Rebuild.

Without the tax, the Kenney administration maintained, there would be no Rebuild. Now that the legal domino has fallen, the administration can forge ahead with the program as it originally intended.

“Just a few weeks ago, the state Supreme Court ruled in our favor, and now Rebuild is not a dream, it’s not someone’s aspiration, but it will be — and is becoming — a reality,” said city Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis.

“We are finally able to really launch Rebuild in full,” said Nicole Westerman, executive director of Rebuild. “That means not only will we be able to launch projects in more neighborhoods, but we will also be investing in small businesses and helping them make good on those opportunities, and [helping] more Philadelphians access careers in the construction industry.”

In addition to improving the facilities’ themselves, Rebuild has been billed as a project that would enhance equity and economic development throughout the city. That would occur in a variety of ways, including newly designed pre-employment programs expected to boost diversity in the building trades unions, ambitious workforce-participation goals, and business-support services aimed at growing the capacity of minority-led firms not only to take on work during Rebuild, but also future city contracts.

“These renovations will not just change the physical infrastructure, not just the appearance, not just the functionality of them, but they will change the lives of those who use them,” said Aparna Palantino, deputy commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

In the coming months, a community-engagement process at Heitzman will begin to seek input from community members that will guide the upgrades to take place at the Castor Avenue playground, likely starting in 2019. “This won't be designed for you; it will be designed with you,” Palantino said.

Proponents of Rebuild have been concerned for months about how the program would be affected by less-than-anticipated revenue generated by the beverage tax in its first calendar year. But at Heitzman on Monday, DiBerardinis suggested that speculation about a scaled-down Rebuild effort was premature. Over the next three years, he said, the city intends to issue $300 million in bonds, in three separate installments, as originally proposed — funds he believes will start to arrive soon.

"Within the next 90 days, we expect … the bond issuance,” DiBerardinis said. “We're reasonably confident that the $500 million is not a pipe dream.”

The community around Heitzman already has big ideas for what the money could bring to the playground.

“This means a lot. They're supposed to redo the ball field and dedicate it to a police officer who died and was from the neighborhood,” said Adella Hawthorne, a member of the Harrowgate Civic Association. “So it's a great honor. We’re looking forward to seeing everything on the upswing.”

This article has been updated to add a photograph from Monday's press conference.

    • Heitzman Playground, 2136 Castor Ave., in Harrowgate.
      Heitzman Playground, 2136 Castor Ave., in Harrowgate.

About the author

Malcolm Burnley, reporter

Malcolm Burnley is a contributor to PlanPhilly. He’s a freelance writer living in South Philadelphia who has contributed to Philadelphia magazine, POLITICO magazine, Next City, Washingtonian, and the Atlantic. He also co-hosts a social-justice podcast called Pushback. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmburnley. 

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