by Lou Mancinelli
Representatives from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department have tabled an informal proposal for a treetop-adventure, ropes-course park to be developed within a five acre section of the 1,800 acre Wissahickon Park near Henry and Wigard avenues in Roxborough, according to a department spokesperson.
The park that would have created a two- to three-hour up-in-the-trees experience, consisting of rope ladders, rope bridges, trapezes, and a small zip-line, aroused local opposition when word of the idea first reached the public this winter.
Two local groups, including the Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW), the group responsible for preserving the integrity of the park, formally announced opposition this spring.
“We felt and still feel it’s a good concept,” said Patrick Morgan, a Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson. “But we also recognize there is differences in public opinion. That kind of divide runs counter to what we are trying to do as a department.”
Neighbors of the proposed location mobilized quickly and formed an organization called Alliance for the Preservation of the Park (APOW).
APOW emerged in April and announced in May it had collected more than 1,450 signatures, including more than 250 collected online, in a formal petition opposed to the creation of the park. Councilman Curtis Jones, who represents constituents who live in the area where the park would have been constructed, signed the petition May 7.
The group adopted the motto “zap the zip” and claimed the development of a park would detract from the natural beauty and create adverse effects on its natural habitat.
Although the Parks and Recreation Department said it is not moving forward, APOW is not celebrating victory. Its members suggested that the city could easily reintroduce the proposal and push forward with the plan.
“The May 2, 2013, statement from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) regarding the zip-line tree-top adventure is inconclusive,” the group wrote in a statement to the Local. “There has not been any clarification of this statement from PPR. Neither have any officials been able to explain it to the Alliance for Preservation of the Wissahickon.”
In February, Friends of Wissahickon (FOW) initially stated that if park development met 12 guidelines listed by FOW, then it was possible FOW would offer its support, according to FOW executive director Maura McCarthy.
When it became clear that public opinion, one of the key things required for FOW to offer its support, opposed the park, FOW board members offered a formal statement May 1 opposing development of the park.
“After lengthy deliberations the FOW has decided not to support a proposed Tree Top Adventure concession in the Wissahickon,” the statement said. “As with many issues affecting the park, FOW has followed a process that involved careful research, varied community input and assessment of the project in light of FOW’s mission.”
“While the environmental impact of the treetop park’s installation would be ‘relatively negligible,’ to introduce a new [park] use you have to have a whole lot of community support,” said McCarthy.
And that it does not have. She said the city’s proposal met eight of the 12 FOW requirements. FOW recommendations included a contract to ensure no new buildings would be installed in the park and existing buildings should be renovated and re-purposed. FOW also sought to make sure the park would not intersect with the Wissahickon Trail system or be visible from the trail system during summer leaf-out.
FOW members were first approached by PPR representatives last summer seeking input about the proposal for a facility to be operated by GoApe Inc. That spurred an FOW fact finding trip to a similar course run by GoApe called Rockcreek Preserve in Rockville, Md,, which included interviews with the executive director of Rock Creek Conservancy and GoApe operators.
In February, the FOW board of directors issued a statement reviewing its trip. It explained the FOW attendees found little to no environmental impact on the site, regular invasive species removal on the ground’s facility, and an established willingness on the part of GoApe operators to work with community groups on promoting environmental values.
McCarthy explained that some of FOW’s reasoning was based on anecdotal as opposed to scientific evidence. She said Philadelphia’s importance for migratory birds might be marginalized as a result of the park. Alhough, she added, a local birdwatcher’s Audubon club in Maryland. claimed that its members actually used the treetop park and noticed no change in the migratory bird presence.
According to Morgan, a zip-line was a small part of the course constructed at the end as part of the exit from the course.
“The encroachment of city life is everywhere but here,” APOW’s petition stated. “We’d like to keep it this way. What we don’t want is more noise and traffic. More parking lots and sanitation facilities. More disturbance and destruction of public land.”
In its online blog on April 20, APOW board member Denise Cotter asked, “Should a valuable Philadelphia asset, Wissahickon Park, be offered to commercial developers for a zip-line treetop amusement concession”?
Other questions posed by Cotter in that same blog piece included, “How does a zip-line exist in a dense forest without any disturbance to the wildlife and environment”? “Since when do we sell our assets of national landscape to commercial developers for amusement”? and “Where is the money going”?
GoApe is an award-winning, London-based company founded in 2001 that operates 28 treetop adventure courses in England, Scotland and Wales and five U.S. states. In 2003 the company received a Best Tourist Attraction Award. Its Virginia facility was voted “#1 outdoor adventure in Eastern Virginia,” by Virginia Living Magazine.