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After successful first phase, NKCDC's Big Green Block thinks bigger

When the $43 million Kensington School for the Creative and Performing Arts (KCAPA) was completed in 2011, it became the first public school in the country to earn LEED Platinum certification (the highest designation under LEED). Fortunately, the school was just the first in a series of eco-friendly projects that have transformed nearly 20 acres of land adjacent to the Berks SEPTA stop in Fishtown.
Dubbed the "Big Green Block," the site is defined by Front Street, Frankford Avenue, Palmer Street and Norris Street, and includes the Shissler Recreation Center (nextdoor to KCAPA). Within Sustainable 19125 -- a New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) initiative to make the zipcode the greenest in the region -- the site was identified as a model location for green infrastructure and sustainable education.

NKCDC worked with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) to develop a green infrastructure master plan for the block. Sold on the project's potential, the Department of Parks and Recreation and Mural Arts were quick to provide additional capital support through partnerships that have resulted in $2 million worth of investment overall.

Pedestrian pathways connecting to the Berks Market-Frankford Line stop, rain gardens, tree trenches, land stabilization, an improved sports field and educational murals have all been developed at the site. According to NKCDC's Shanta Schachter, these improvements have kept "90 percent of the site’s stormwater out of sewer pipes" -- and that's just from the first round of improvements.

For phase two of the Big Green Block, more than 60 residents participated in vision sessions to identify the community's needs. PHS translated the ideas borne from that process into a landscape plan. Through NKCDC’s ongoing strategic partnerships with the city and other stakeholders, phase two construction is underway.

The improvements reflect the space's history as a former rail yard -- new benches are being made locally to reference sealed railroad ties and the long-buried cobblestones from the site have been re-exposed. The vacant lot on the south end of the block is also being reimagined as a playfield for young kids and improved dog park, complete with additional seating and plantings.

Just weeks from completion, "the space already looks really great," says NKCDC's Diana Jih. "The improvements build off how the community user groups (Palmer Doggie Depot and Fishtown Athletic Club) we partnered with were using the site and adjacent land already.”

On April 20, NKCDC will hold a volunteer day from 10am-1pm to put the finishing touches on the playground and dog park. The day's agenda includes planting native species, and spreading mulch. The ongoing maintenance of the site is all volunteer run, so there’s a need for  as much support needed as possible.

No official ribbon-cutting date has been set, but NKCDC expects it will occur in early June. "The site will be open at the beginning of May," adds Schachter. 

Moving forward, even more improvements are planned. The site's basketball court will be reconstructed to better capture stormwater runoff from the rec center's roof and an improved spray park with education elements will be built thanks to Mural Arts and PWD.  

Source:  Diana Jih and Shanta Schachter, NKCDC
WriterGreg Meckstroth
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