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Monday, February 15, 2010

Little Guys Win Big

Philadelphia Daily News
Citizens group savors its rescue of Burholme Park

Burholme Estate
NOT FAR FROM the clamor of Cottman Avenue, where sandwich shops, hair salons and professional offices dot a bustling corridor, there is a wooded spot in Burholme Park with a creek running through it.

When city officials agreed to carve out some 20 acres of the lush, green park so that the nearby Fox Chase Cancer Center could expand, a group of ordinary residents took a stand. They wouldn't let the park go. Not without a fight.

Among them were a couple of retired school teachers, a onetime corner grocer and a former telephone line technician who loves to hike and cross-country ski.

They formed Save Burholme Park, but they weren't very popular. They were dubbed "tree huggers" by some and a "ragtag group" by a zoning lawyer.

No one thought they had the slightest chance against the high-powered attorneys and politicians who supported the cancer center.

Yet, last month, after losing an appeal in Commonwealth Court in December, Fox Chase announced it was dropping its efforts to build inside the park.

Jean Gavin, a retired fifth-grade teacher, and an outspoken leader of Save Burholme Park, was elated.

"We're living on seventh heaven!" Gavin said. "I didn't expect that. I thought they would fight until hell froze over.

"They have had the money to spend. We've had none. We've been fighting them only on good will and determination."

The activists had gone up against Gov. Rendell, former Mayor John Street, Mayor Nutter, Councilman Brian O'Neill and most members of the now-defunct Fairmount Park Commission who had backed the expansion plan.

But the "little guys" won.

"They bought the very best law firms. They've had the best of everything," Gavin said. "We've had one lawyer [Samuel C. Stretton] pro bono. No one would have given two cents on our winning!"

"Usually big money wins," added Frank Neumann, 94, a longtime park supporter. "But we didn't give up. We sort of had faith. But it was slim."

Burholme Park stretches over 65 acres at Cottman and Central avenues. It includes the Ryerss Mansion and Museum, a popular sledding hill, a golf range, baseball fields and a densely wooded area to the west that sharply slopes down to a stream that feeds into Tacony Creek. The park seems worlds away from the congestion of Cottman Avenue.

"It was always a refuge," said Marlene Sellers, another retired teacher in the group. "I couldn't imagine all those buildings there.

Citing cramped conditions and an explosion of new cancer patients over the years, Fox Chase, at Central and Shelmire avenues, wanted to build as many as 18 buildings in the center of the park over the next 20 years.

"Their argument was that we'd still have the mansion and the library and the sledding hill. But the whole essence of the park would have been destroyed," Sellers said. She is also secretary of Friends of Ryerss, a volunteer group that supports the mansion.

Robert Waln Ryerss, a 19th-century lawyer and philanthropist, gave most of the park to the city in his 1895 will "for the use and enjoyment of the people for ever."

The gift included the family's Victorian-era mansion, which resembles an Italian country villa. Robert's father, Joseph Ryerss, a shipping and Tioga Railroad tycoon, built it in 1859.

Now a library and museum filled with Asian art and other objects travel-loving Ryerss family members collected, the mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places. It sits high atop a gently sloping hill. From it, one can see the Center City skyline.

In March 2008, City Council gave its blessing to a deal first worked out with the Fairmount Park Commission to lease 19.4 acres of the park to the cancer center for at least 80 years. The center had first asked for nearly 39 acres.

But Gavin, Sellers and the other park lovers went to Philadelphia Orphans Court to challenge the deal.

"What disturbed me was there was a will," said Sellers. "But no one in the city, none of the politicians, not one of the institutions in power tried to protect the park.

"They were supposed to safeguard the park for the people."

She asserted that the center officials "assumed it was theirs to take. It was a kind of arrogance of power."

City officials said they were worried the cancer center would move out of the city and take an estimated 4,000 jobs with it.

And Fox Chase supporters noted that wills had been broken before. They pointed to Stephen Girard's will, which set up Girard College as a free boarding school to "poor white orphan males."

Fighting City Hall

The "ragtag" group, many of them retired, began their fight for the park at a community meeting at the Fox Chase Elementary School not long after the center announced it needed to expand into the park in late 2004.

That first meeting was pretty much evenly divided between neighborhood residents who agreed with the expansion and those opposed.

But at later meetings, such as those of the Fox Chase Homeowners Association, Jean Gavin said she was often told to "shut up." But she was determined to be heard.

A turning point came when Gavin got a telephone call from Mary Tracy, executive director of SCRUB, the Public Voice for Public Space, who had earlier helped Gavin remove illegal billboards from the Rhawn Street Bridge. Tracy had heard about the plans to build inside the park.

Gavin asked Tracy, "Can you help us find a lawyer?"

Tracy brought Stretton to Gavin's home on Rhawn near Verree, and soon the other activists in Save Burholme Park began meeting there.

When they knocked on doors to get petitions signed, they often were told they were wasting their time.

"It's a done deal, it's a done deal," or "You can't fight City Hall," Denise Kirk, who lives across the street from the cancer center, said people told the group.

Besides Gavin, Neumann, Kirk and Sellers, the group's core leaders included Fred Maurer, a retired telephone technician and hiker and Tim Kearney, a candidate for state representative in the 172nd District.

The activists said some neighbors accused them of being against cancer research, or that they didn't care about people who needed jobs at the center.

"We were not against the cancer center, we were for the park," Sellers insisted.

"I have cancer myself," said Neumann, who played in the park back in the 1920s.

'Old-fashioned activism'

The activists did more than gather petitions and knock on doors.

Stretton, the attorney, said the group members "got materials for me, they lined up witnesses and gave me a lot of history about the park and went back to old books and gave me old sources and opinions."

He especially credited Tracy, of SCRUB, and Maurer and Gavin of the park group.

Maurer, 74, spent hours researching the case in the Jenkins Law Library in Center City.

"They are very dedicated people, some of them living on fixed retirement incomes, and they helped me immensely," Stretton said. "They stood up to correct something that they thought would be a detriment to the community if the park was taken."

"It's an old-fashioned citizen activism and it's dying away. It's dying away," Stretton said.

Stretton first won in Philadelphia Orphans Court in December 2008 when Judge John W. Herron ruled in a 61-page finding that the state's "public trust doctrine protects every square foot" of the park.

Fox Chase had hired lawyers from two of the city's most powerful law firms.

First, Amy B. Ginensky and a team of lawyers from Pepper Hamilton represented the center in Orphans Court.

When the center appealed to Commonwealth Court in 2009, it hired James Gardner Colins, of Cozen O'Connor, a former president judge of Commonwealth Court, to plead its case before that very same court.

Fox Chase will consider its options for expansion over the next few months, said Tim Spreitzer, the center's spokesman. Officials will decide whether to build taller on top of existing buildings or whether to "split the campus," by having its hospital and research facilities at different locations.

The center needs to expand because "cancer is expected to surpass heart disease as the number one cause of death by 2011," he said.

But one thing is for sure, according to Spreitzer:

"The center is absolutely committed to Northeast Philadelphia on a long-term basis."

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