Over the course of four years and at a cost of $46.5 million, Penn has transformed a parking lot into a lot of park. Penn Park, a 24-acre expanse of athletic and recreational space that opened last week, has a multitude of advantages for members of the Penn and Philadelphia communities. But the question remains — will students actually go that far east to utilize the Park?
The group that benefits the most from Penn Park is clearly the University’s athletic community; Athletic Director Steve Bilsky has been intimately involved with the development process since its inception. No longer will teams, including intramural and club sports, face the frustrating search for fields to practice on. A state-of-the-art seasonal air structure will allow outdoor teams to practice in a spacious, heated area when the weather turns cold. And the Park’s modern amenities will undoubtedly work in Penn’s favor when it recruits athletes.
Penn Park also does well to support the University’s pledge to practice ecologically sustainable development, increasing Penn’s green space by 20 percent. Purchasing a tract of land of this size and devoting it solely for use as a public green is unprecedented for an urban university. Equipping this space with an underground reservoir for rainwater to irrigate the fields, employing low-flow faucets and low-flush toilets, implementing a modern system of lighting that saves 300,000 watts of energy per hour and using recycled materials during construction all further enhance the sustainability of the Park.
The opening of Penn Park gives a large boost to “Greenworks Philadelphia,” Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America by 2015. The Parks and Recreation Department specifically is leading a project known as Green2015, which aims to add 500 new acres of green space in the city and ensure that 75 percent of residents live within 10 minutes of a park. Penn Park helps the city get much closer to both of these targets.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, meanwhile, has a plan of her own — “Penn Connects,” a 30-year, $1.94 billion vision for campus development launched in 2006 — that centers around Penn Park and aims to create stronger links between Penn and Center City. The late 20th century had Penn seeking to expand its campus further west; Gutmann now sees the University’s future in the east.
But as beneficial as the Park is for athletes and for the environment, it remains to be seen how much Penn students as a whole will use it. The University is certainly trying to entice students there. It hosted two inaugural events — a picnic and a field day — and launched the Campus Loop Bus to make it easier to get to the Park. But a number of impediments prevent the Park from becoming a destination for students, including its distance from the western end of campus, its emphasis on athletic over recreational space and the lack of retail in the area. Although the administration’s long-term desire is to shift the conceptual center of campus a few blocks east, most students’ academic and social lives are situated toward the west. Of course, a shift may occur with time — and with the completed construction of Shoemaker Green and the Krishna P. Singh Center for Nanotechnology. Penn Park is one reason for students to venture east; administrators must follow it up with other reasons, not the least of which should be retail and dining options that students find compelling.
To move the heart of campus eastward, the University must move the hearts of students eastward.
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