Roxborough Green

An excavator begins scraping a site on Ridge Avenue for new construction. 

Part 1 of a two-part column.

Roxborough and Manayunk are booming: new townhouses and single-family homes are rising up along Ridge Avenue near the Wawa and across from the Ridge Carlton apartments, at the bottom of Cinnaminson Street, where the Ugly Moose (RIP) used to hold court, and – OMG! –  on Venice Island, a veritable mini-city of an impossible number of apartments rising daily.

While one always roots for a strong economy, one of the downsides of the current housing boom is the continued loss of open space across the community.

“Roxborough is at a tipping point,” says Jamie Wyper, himself an architect but also the president of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley civic association, “and we may be losing the very attributes that brought us out here in the first place.”

Are we at a tipping point? Let’s talk: On Thursday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m., the Schuylkill Center hosts “Roxborough Green: Preserving Open Space,” a community meeting on protecting this precious resource. The evening is free and open to the community. Participants include James Harry Calamia, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation; Celeste Hardester, president of the Central Roxborough Civic Association; Kay Sykora, a board member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy; and Matt Wysong, a planner with the City of Philadelphia.

Jamie’s comments cut to the core of the community’s concerns about open space.

“The steady economy,” he continues, “has fostered a booming housing market in Roxborough where every nook and cranny is developed, every historic building with a side yard is threatened, and the remaining open land is in play. When this happens, we lose habitat, biodiversity, cultural treasures, recreation space, peace of mind, beauty and distinction, and in return, we gain traffic congestion, heat islands, poor air quality, and uniformity.”

“Open space is the heart and lungs for our community,” adds Kay Sykora. “It works to stabilize the environment, the temperature and rain flow, it absorbs excess rain and provides an environment for birds and wildlife.

“But beyond all that,” she offers, “it strengthens the economics of the community. It makes the community a place where people want to live near green space, trails, creeks and rivers. It adds significant economic value for both homeowners and businesses to build on: homeowners because people want to live here, and business because a strong residential base will support local businesses.”

James Calamia agrees.

“Open space is one of Roxborough's strongest competitive advantages; the quantity and quality of our open space distinguishes the neighborhood from other areas of the city,” he said.

And historic preservation uniquely dovetails with open space. Kay continues, “Historic preservation along with open space allows the community to maintain its identity now and for the future. Our unique identity is our brand and the reason Roxborough and Manayunk are the communities of choice for new neighbors. Without that unique identity it is harder to make the case for this community over any other.”

Celeste Hardester adds another reason to worry about open space loss.

“From my perspective,” she says, “the kind of open space that matters most critically is land that contains trees. For innumerable environmental reasons that many are familiar with, trees matter, and today they arguably matter to the long-term wellbeing of all life more than any other kind of open space.” That’s why three weeks ago in this column she offered her New Year‘s resolution of committing to planting more and larger trees in Roxborough.

Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association and active in running the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve Park, offers a new slant to the conversation.

“Since I moved here 20 years ago,” he told me, “I’ve been struck by something. We are a city built out for two million but we were reduced to 1.5 or thereabouts. Our area was a bit late to the game and is now the kind of mix that appeals to a large number of people, some dense areas but surrounded by significant amounts of parks and other free space. Shouldn’t our planning be looking to have other sections of the city, which need renewal, be modeled after the mix of some density surrounded by significant amounts of green space rather than having the open space here be the target?”

Great question – and one of many that will be answered at the upcoming town meeting. The event doubles as the Ninth Annual Richard L. James Lecture, an annual event honoring the memory of the Schuylkill Center’s founding executive director, who wrote a weekly column in this paper. Titled “This Week Outdoors,” Dick would opine about what was happening in nature at that moment, and wrote his column for many years – he ultimately directed the Schuylkill Center for more than 30 years. To kick off the evening, Dick’s son Andy will share some opening comments about his dad, and then we’ll dive into the town meeting on open space.

Next week in this column, we’ll continue the conversation, and continue hearing from more of the voices participating in the town meeting. Love to add your voice to the mix. Email me if you have concerns about the loss of open space – jump into the conversation.

Next week, more about trees, and possible solutions to the crisis.

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Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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