Just over a week ago, members of the Water Department, the Fairmount Park Commission (FPC) and the Audubon Society led a tour through the East Park Reservoir, located near the city’s Strawberry Mansion section to drum up support for a plan to convert the West Basin into a publicly-accessible urban lake which would serve as the core of a new environmental education center. The effort stems from Audubon Society’s 2020 program designed to reconnect urban areas to more “wild” areas via educational centers. While portions of the reservoir have already been tranferred to the FPC and Audubon Society, the unused basis still may be developed.
Despite what modern maps show, the Reservoir, parts of which date to the late 1880s, is not an uninterrupted pond but divided into basins, only one of which, the Northeast (white section), is still in service. As the Water Department’s reservoir maintenance supervisor Joseph Schultz told us, the white is a polypropelene covering, required by Federal law over treated drinking water, which floats on the surface. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Reservoir consisted of three filled basins providing enough water for sections of a 2 to 1.9 million person city. The North Basin was separated into East and West Basins during the 1970s. Although the Reservoir consists of 82 acres, only 20 percent of this land area is utilized for water storage. The North West Basin is dry with minimal vegetative growth, the South basin, closed in 1996, has substantial vegetative growth and the West Basin (below) is filled with rainwater and functions as an urban lake.
The joint FPC/Audubon plan would have to tackle two major issues: security and drainage. Public access would be limited to the West Basin and access to the “common wall” (pictured above) or the main dyke running separating FPC/PWD property would be limited by a series of fences. The Water Department has charged the Park Commission with designed and operating a new water level regulation system for the West Basin which would function independent of the Water Department’s own system. Plans would probably call for a spillway mechanism to dump excess water into an adjacent gully pictured in the topographical map below. It was through this gully that millions of gallons of water flowed when a sizable breach in the Diamond St. wall occurred in the 1980s. As Schultz explained, the blowout occurred at a part of the Reservoir wall where a major main was located. A major blockage somewhere in the city’s system sent a water hammer back through the outfall. The shock and pressure of the returning water weakening the wall and caused it fail.
Developers have long lusted after the Reservoir land – even when all 82 acres were in use. In the late 1960s, a plan developed by the Philadelphia Gas Works and the City called East Park sought to build a suburban-type “modern” community within the “park setting” of the reservoir comprising some 5,000 units, schools, modern playgrounds, Though close to the city, East Park would function as an isolated unit with its own “Townhall Square” with a “sub-City Hall” and most importantly “municipal square” would “share parking facilities for over 500 cars”: all of which was calculated to provide 20,000 residents with a taste of suburban autonomy while retaining property and wage taxes. The Evening Bulletin took pains to dismiss criticism that East Park would be an enclave of the rich and pointed out that low cost building and low interest mortgage money would make it possible to sell a 3 bedroom home for $11,000 and low rental prices would make East Park “a true cross section of incomes.” Interestingly all units would be cooled and heated using natural gas – a clear boon to the then municipally-owned Gas Works.
Clearly, East Park was not constructed by 1972 as ambitious City developers imagined. Instead, the surrounding Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown areas became increasingly depopulated, poor, and racially homogenous as white ethnics migrated out of the city. The closure of 3 of the 4 basins is a clear reminder of the city’s devastating population loss.
Despite the plan’s progress, East Park Reservoir is again contested terrain and development of the unused basins is still possible. As community leaders and Fairmount Park educators suggested, the need to offer residents an environment beyond urban ghetto is strong in a place like Strawberry Mansion, especially for children. Looking at the recent ceding of Fairmount Park property to the Fox Chase Cancer Center, however, it is clear that Fairmount Park Commissioners are not opposed to new methods of revenue generation. The city, it seems, is no different.
Drink deep of the Reservoir: