Years-long effort to construct boathouse wages on

Temple’s building of a new boathouse is a bureaucratic battle.

The crew and rowing teams are in tents.

Despite not having a roof over their heads for the past four years, men and women on the rowing teams have managed to win a number of races and regattas since 2008, including a gold medal for crew at the 2010 Dad Vail Regatta and a program-best bronze medal at the Atlantic 10 Conference Championships for rowing in May.

This past fall season, crew had four first-place finishes at the Braxton Regatta in November and rowing qualified for next year’s Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, despite the two teams having to share space in a single tent structure that sits unceremoniously in a parking lot on the northern edge of the esteemed Boathouse Row on Kelly Drive.

Now, Temple remains hopeful that a four-year process to get the teams their own boathouse will reach the next step on Jan. 16, 2013, when the Commission of Parks and Recreation votes on a proposal submitted by the university in October.

“We just take it one semester at a time,” coach Gavin R. White, who has been with the crew team for 33 years, said. “I feel bad, but I tell the kids the same thing every fall: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Temple is trying to acquire a half-acre plot of land to build a boathouse on the east side of the Schuylkill River, south of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and north of the East Park Canoe House, the home of Temple crew and rowing for almost 40 years until the building was condemned in 2008.

The condemnation forced the crew and rowing teams to move into two tents set up next to ECPH. The teams lost $150,000 worth of equipment and one of the tents during the 2009-10 season when the retaining wall on the riverbank collapsed twice during storms and caused a flood of the tents.

The women’s team has used the remaining tent to store its equipment for the past two years, while the men’s team operates half in the tent, and half on a trailer in the parking lot outside.

First-year women’s rowing coach Rebecca Smith Grzybowski said the facilities didn’t deter her from accepting the job, nor does it take away from her team’s performance.

“I knew what I was getting into when I took the job,” she said. “It doesn’t faze me by any stretch of the imagination. Teams practice in challenging conditions all over the country. I don’t think it has any impact on our speed or our ability.”

“Boathouses don’t make you fast,” senior rower Joanna Sutor said. “They make things convenient and easy, but they don’t make you faster on the water. If we got a boathouse, it would make our program stronger as a whole, but it’s not the be-all, end-all.”

Before Hurricane Sandy approached Philadelphia, the teams had to scramble to move the tent to higher ground and hiked the trailer to safekeeping in Roxborough.

“It’s one of those things where it’s a factor if you let it affect you,” senior rower Mike Mirabella said. “I think it leaves a chip on your shoulder and makes you tougher. That’s a big part of the culture at Temple is to be tough. It fits. I don’t think we’re at a disadvantage, but I think it would be advantageous for us to have a boathouse.”

The weather problems with the tent, combined with the lack of an alternative to a new boathouse, only adds to the university’s motivation to move through the building process with the city, Ken Lawrence, senior vice president for government, community and public affairs, said.

“Ideally, it would have happened five years ago when we were kicked out of the canoe club,” Lawrence said. “There’s a great sense of urgency. We’d like to get the facility. We’re going through the approval process the city has laid out.”

Lawrence and a staff that included University Architect Margaret Carney submitted a report to the Parks and Recreation Commission in October that included a 10-page alternatives analysis arguing for the public good of the boathouse, detailing the building design and evaluating the alternatives to the project.

The analysis was mandated by the City of Philadelphia Open Space Protection Ordinance, passed in April 2011 to protect parkland from being converted or transferred without public interest.

The bill requires an entity seeking to transfer ownership of public parkland to submit the analysis to the Parks and Recreation Commission, where it must be posted on the commission’s website for public comment for at least 30 days prior to the commission’s next meeting. The commission then votes on the proposal and makes a recommendation to city council.

Temple is the first entity to go through this process since the bill was passed.

“I believe we’ll get approval and yes, we’ll build a boathouse,” Lawrence said. “I think we’ve gotten very favorable response on the alternatives analysis from commission and council.”

After negotiating with the city for years, former Temple President Ann Weaver Hart announced Temple had identified the parcel of land it desired to build the boathouse on, at a March 2011 Board of Trustees meeting. One month later, the city ordinance was passed, drawing out the process even longer.

Temple developed the alternatives analysis and proposed it to the Parks and Recreation Commission in June 2012. The commission responded by requesting an analysis of the effects the project would have on the environment along the riverbank and the traffic of Kelly Drive.

Temple hired Pennoni, an engineering and design consulting firm, to complete the environment analysis and traffic study, a 13-page report submitted along with the alternatives analysis in October.

The analysis details a 23,000 square-foot, two-story building complete with three boat bays, a rowing tank, an exercise room and a community room, a 2,700 square-foot all-purpose room where the team can host banquets and cocktail parties on the second floor.

White said he’s been working with Lawrence and his team “every step of the way” to make sure the teams have what they need in the new boathouse.

“That’s a pie in the sky. It would be one of the nicest on the East Coast,” White said. “We certainly won’t wind up with everything we ask for. It’s certainly hard not to be excited about it after being in tents for four years.”

The analysis also outlines design requirements that would ensure the building’s place in Boathouse Row. The description states, in addition to ensuring the boathouse can sustain floodwater on a regular basis, the boathouse “should use materials and forms which are complimentary to traditional boathouse features and which convey the similar overall aesthetic as that of Boathouse Row structures,” like stone, brick, wood and glass.

“It would be awesome on so many levels,” Grzybowski said. “It’s an added sense of pride in where we are and a place to call home.”

The public benefits of building the boathouse, the analysis argues, would be to improve lighting and increase traffic on the Kelly Drive walking path, beautify an otherwise unused piece of land and help further solidify the rowing community in Philadelphia.

The environmental analysis concludes the building of the boathouse would have a net positive impact on the environment of Fairmount Park because it will ensure the land will continue to be used for recreational rowing, provide a formal presence of ownership and improve storm water management. The parking study found the boathouse would have little effect on the traffic on Kelly Drive, other than restricting weekend parking for the walking trail.

While Pennoni was completing its analyses, the university used the four-month grace period to get letters of support from leaders of the civic and rowing communities. Temple received letters from John Hogan, commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, John R. Galloway, chairman of the Dad Vail Organizing Committee, Inc., and City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., vice chairman of the committee on parks, recreation & cultural affairs and the councilman whose district the proposed boathouse would be built in.

Those letters were submitted to the Parks and Recreation Commission along with Pennoni’s report and the alternatives analysis in October.

“We have the support from the councilman, but it’s not our determination,” Lawrence said. “I don’t have a vote on the Park Commission or a vote on City Council. I don’t want to be a predictor of what they’re going to do. We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from the proposal.”

The final stipulation of the city ordinance Temple had to address was the issue of substitute land. The city ordinance requires any entity seeking to transfer ownership of park land must give back a plot or parkland of equal value or size to the city. Since Temple doesn’t have parkland to provide, the university has offered to donate $1.5 million toward the renovation of the East Park Canoe House.

The canoe house was built in 1914 and used to facilitate Olympic training during the early 20th century, is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, but was condemned in 2008 due to multiple code violations. The alternatives analysis argues there is public interest in restoring the historic structure.

Lawrence said Temple’s donation offer is on the condition the city grants the university the land to build.

“It is what it is,” Lawrence said. “If we’re granted the land, then that’s part of the alternatives analysis. If the city determines they wanted to use that for something other than the canoe club, then they could use it for something else. But it’s part of the submission we made to the city.”

Assistant Vice President and Associate Athletic Director Mark Ingram estimated the cost of the boathouse project at $8 million to $10 million at a meeting of the athletics committee of the Board of Trustees on Sept. 19.

Ingram expressed concern about strategic fundraising strategies at the meeting, stating the project could fail if Temple is not careful in how it approaches garnering funds.

“We can’t announce that the boathouse is happening and everybody get on board because the 1,000 or so prospects that we have will all give $100 and we’ll be sitting with [$100,000] for a $10 million project,” Ingram said.

The university has begun discussing fundraising, but the cash flow has been put on hold by the ongoing negotiations with the city, Lawrence said.

“There’s clearly alumni support for this, but until it gets approved, you’re not going to raise money for a building you don’t have,” Lawrence said.

Ingram’s presentation came during a meeting where the university’s transition to the Big East Conference in 2013 was the main point of conversation. Rowing will enter the Big East in 2013, but the conference doesn’t sponsor enough teams for crew.

However, Grzybowki said the boathouse is about more than boosting facilities before a move to a power conference.

“Regardless of whatever conference we’re in we want to have great facilities and give our student-athletes the best experience that they can possibly get,” she said. “Anything that’s going to enhance to that is a positive. It’s not about the A-10 or the Big East, it’s about what this program deserves and represents.”

Despite the university’s efforts, it’s clear that having its own boathouse at Temple is something the current group of seniors will never experience.

“It’s a little bit disappointing,” senior rower Richard “Trey” Ehmer said. “I just want to see the final product. I just want to be inside it once and know what future generations will have.”

Temple’s submission to the Parks and Recreation Commission was posted online Nov. 13 where is open to public comment before the commission’s next meeting in January. Following the commission’s recommendation, a bill has to be drafted, read three times and be subject to a public hearing. A vote from City Council then becomes the final determinant.

City Council has yet to publish its 2013 meeting schedule.

Joey Cranney can be reached at or on Twitter @joey_cranney.

CORRECTION: This article previously misidentified the name of the commission Temple’s proposal is being submitted to. The article previously called the commission the Fairmount Park Commission. It should be called the Commission on Parks and Recreation. A correction made on Dec. 20, 2012 reflects the change.

1 Comment

  1. A modest donation to take away picnic grounds from the residents of Philly?!? I don’t think so! Let Temple take over one of the country clubs on Boathouse Row- another private land grab that excludes locals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.