When the Venice Island project was first proposed, Michael Nutter was still a councilman serving the Fourth District. Nutter, now Mayor of Philadelphia, and many others agree that 10 years was worth the wait.
“Welcome to the new Venice Island,” said Nutter.
Originally conceived as a pollution reduction project by the Philadelphia Water Department, it evolved over time to become a community hub and hopefully the latest jewel in the crown for Manayunk. The Venice Island Performing Arts Center (VIPAC) boasts a 250-seat theater, complete with lighting, catwalks, rehearsal and classrooms. There is more to the site including an outdoor amphitheater, basketball and volleyball courts, a spray park, porous pavement, tree trenches and rain gardens.
“This is such an incredible opportunity for us to draw people from all over the region,” said Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation. “This is the beginning of the next great chapter for Philadelphia.”
The $46 million project is an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation in collaboration with the Manayunk Development Corporation.
“This is proof that what we can do with strong political leadership and partnership with the community,” said Michael DiBerardinis, deputy mayor for Environmental and Community Resources. “I look forward to high quality programs here and from across the city.”
VIPAC will be home to community theater, after-school programing, community events and waterfront activities. During a preview event last month, it was revealed that the center which will run on a 3-tier business model. VIPAC has a 10-person advisory board, made up of city and community members. The center has partnered with many community organizations including but not limited to the Manayunk Neighborhood Council, The Schuylkill Center, Manayunk Development Corporation. Its core values are to be accessible, affordable, and educational. Since it is city-owned building, it will be made available to other programs in the city.
“This is certainly going to help with our creative economy,” said Councilman At-Large David Oh. “It is a smart project; a good, quality project.”
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 7, guests got a taste what VIPAC can be for the community with performances from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) choir and “Rap Master Sterlen Barr. CAPA dancers took the theater stage.
Venice Island is nexus point of the Schuylkill River Trail, along the Manayunk Tow Path, which is used by many walkers and bike riders, who include U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah.
“My family and I will be able to stay and enjoy this place in way we haven’t be able to do,” said Fattah. “We should all take great pride in [VIPAC].”
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who succeeded Nutter in the 4th District admitted that, being raised as city boy, green spaces and waterfronts were a learning curve for him. But after visiting Manayunk, which he often describes as the ‘best small town’ in the city; he learned quickly. He also thanked his teacher, Kay Sykora, former executive director of the MDC and head of Destination Schuykill River, and honored her by naming the street “Kay Sykora Way” after her.
“Look at this project, it is awesome,” said Sykora.
Even more awesome is the engineer feat that remains largely unseen, save for the small pump house with green roof on the far end of the island.
“You know that exciting word, infrastructure. It’s important,” said Nutter. “You deserve it.”
Nutter remembers all the severe weather problems that have happened in Manayunk, from his days as councilman. Beneath VIPAC is a four million gallon storage basin, measuring 400-feet long, 75-feet wide and 25-feet deep, that will temporarily store diverted sanitary flow from the interceptor sewer during intense rain storms. After years of research and community engagement, it was determined that the storage basin should be placed on Venice Island and necessitating the demolition of the former recreation center.
“I remember that rec center was hot even in the winter time,” said Nutter. “Beneath our feet is a tank that you will never see but this great facility that you will see. It will be a destination spot for a lot of people, who have been wanting something new and different for the community.”
According to Philadelphia Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug, the department’s efforts to clean up the rivers have been successful with the first sturgeon caught in Philadelphia waters in 100 years. Neukrug also thanked the MDC and the Manayunk Neighborhood Council for their patience. The project took parking off the island for three years.
“You have gone three years without a parking lot,” said Neukrug. “What we have given back to you, I hope will make up for that.”
Follow Staff Writer Bernard J. Scally on Twitter: @MrBScally
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