The images on Parkwood resident Joe Brennan’s polished home video might induce a sentimental tear — even from the most ardent industrialist.
A fluffy brown bunny rabbit nibbles on a dandelion as it peeks through tall blades of grass; a crystal clear brook trickles over silky smooth stones; and an iridescent dragonfly perches atop a fallen twig.
All of that wooded splendor and more lay just a few hundred yards behind Brennan’s back porch. Yet, he and many of his neighbors believe it could all be destroyed if a local tour bus company expands its parking lot into a parcel of undeveloped brush and woods formerly owned by the city.
Early this month, Brennan produced his professional-looking video about this perceived invasion of parkland and posted it on YouTube. Since then, the six-minute film has garnered more than 3,300 views and launched a grassroots campaign to stop David Tours from paving over what neighbors call the “Parkwood Manor Woods.”
Problem is, the land isn’t public property anymore and was earmarked for industrial development more than nine years ago, although Brennan and dozens of his neighbors say they were kept in the dark about its future until two bulldozers showed up in early August to clear out trees and underbrush.
“I returned from vacation to find out [the foliage] was all ripped out. I took a look at it and was appalled,” Brennan said. “I created the video to show how passionately I feel about this area, and on top of that, to show the people what’s going on in their neighborhood since they’re not aware of it and cannot see it from [beyond] immediate distance.”
Around the same time, somebody set fire to the two bulldozers, rendering them inoperable for weeks. Authorities have ruled the Aug. 3 blaze arson. They have made no arrests and named no suspects.
According to neighbors, work resumed on the site last week.
The 2.94-acre parcel in question, at 14003 McNulty Road, is part of the Byberry East Industrial Park and situated behind the existing David Tours headquarters. The bus company bought the additional land from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation on June 11 for $120,000, according to property tax records.
The sale culminated a decade-long process that involved a land swap between PIDC and the city’s former Fairmount Park Commission, a series of public hearings and extensive environmental studies by the Philadelphia Water Department.
“We did everything by the book. It just took a long time,” said David Benedict, owner of David Tours.
Benedict founded the bus company in 1980. It now has 75 employees and parks about 50 buses on McNulty Road, the owner said. The company bought its current headquarters in 2000.
PIDC — a non-profit joint venture of the City of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce — created the industrial park in the 1980s on land formerly occupied by a state mental institution and a city prison farm. The original plan included an agreement with neighbors establishing a 300-foot buffer zone from the nearest residential properties, including those along Wyndom and Chilton roads, where Brennan and many other opponents of the bus company expansion live.
Originally, the Fairmount Park Commission took possession of the buffer area and chose to maintain it as “passive” green space, allowing trees and brush to grow naturally without trimming or other intervention.
In time, however, neighbors began to use the buffer zone and adjacent, undeveloped industrial property as a recreation area. They routinely mowed a large field and walking paths through the acres of underbrush and trees.
Brennan, 44, describes in his video how he and other neighborhood kids years ago built “tree forts” and carved their names on the trees, and how they caught crayfish in a nearby stream, known as Black Lake Run.
“The Parkwood woods have always stayed constant and have improved,” he said in the film. “We maintain the field behind our houses. We even maintain the paths through the brush so people can walk their dogs and enjoy the natural sights.”
That was the status quo even through 2010, when the commission, an independent public agency, dissolved and the city administration absorbed its functions under the newly formed Department of Parks and Recreation, including oversight of all city-owned parks.
Meanwhile, the Byberry East Industrial Park changed drastically. Over the years, PIDC sold off most of the industrial land to businesses, but found itself stuck with a few parcels deemed by prospective buyers as less desirable because of their odd configurations or poor street access.
The lot at 14003 McNulty Road was one of those unwanted parcels.
About a decade ago, Benedict told PIDC he wanted to expand his bus company. The agency offered to sell him an undeveloped industrial parcel to the east of the bus company, but that site slopes into Black Lake Run, which in turn flows into Poquessing Creek.
Benedict preferred the 14003 lot, conditional upon some modifications to its irregular shape.
“[Benedict] wanted to see if we could square his lot off into a rectangular shape, so we met with Fairmount Park [Commission]. We said we had some property in the area and asked if they would entertain a swap,” said Tom Dalfo, vice president for real estate services of PIDC.
In the end, PIDC gave 3.24 acres to the park system, including the slope and natural waterway. PIDC got 1.21 acres of parkland that it ultimately consolidated with the existing industrial land and sold to Benedict’s company.
“We never, ever get involved in negotiations with land swaps where we don’t end up on the plus side,” said Barry Bessler, the chief of staff for parks and facilities at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
The City Planning Commission, the Fairmont Park Commission and City Council all held public hearings about the swap in 2003 and approved it, according to Councilman Brian O’Neill, whose district includes the industrial park and the neighborhood.
According to Rob Armstrong, the preservation and capital projects manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation, the city will use the former industrial property to build a trail that will connect several public parks and recreation facilities in the area.
By this time next year, construction should be under way on a 12-foot-wide paved multi-use trail connecting the newly acquired parkland with the city-owned Junod Playground; the 32-acre, city-owned Poquessing Creek Park; and the 275-acre Benjamin Rush State Park. It will be open to hikers, joggers, bicyclists and equestrians and will cost about $600,000 to build, Armstrong said.
As part of Benedict’s deal, he has agreed to install a water retention and filtration basin below the new parking lot and has hired an environmental firm to create and maintain wetlands adjacent to the tour bus lot. The company will also pay for creation of a four- to six-foot high berm at the rear of the new parking area to shield it from view.
Meanwhile, the David Tours expansion will not infringe upon the 300-foot buffer and will be about 400 feet from the nearest homes, PIDC’s Dalfo said. Benedict told residents at a public meeting yesterday that the lot will be about 600 feet from the nearest homes.
However, by all accounts, the lot will bring the buses closer to homes than ever before. And that has neighbors worried.
Benedict says the new parking lot will be able to accommodate about 60 buses and will allow him to relieve congestion around the maintenance facility on his existing lot. He said he generally adds a few buses and several employees to his operation each year.
“If this goes through, what happens next? Are they going to take another one hundred feet and be right up to our backyards?” said neighbor Ray Kampf.
Brennan’s video itemizes many of the neighbors’ concerns. They’re worried that the buses will leak fuel, oil or other fluids into the soil and nearby streams. The buses may bring more diesel exhaust and noise pollution to the air, too.
The filmmaker also warned of, “the possible vandalism that’s going to come to our neighborhood.”
Considering the bulldozer fire and other lesser acts of vandalism recently, Benedict also has heightened concerns about security.
“It’s our responsibility to protect the buses from any kind of terroristic threat,” he said.
He doesn’t think the recent vandalism was mere coincidence, blaming it on “a few select people who are trying to take it upon themselves to see that the project doesn’t move forward.”
Brennan, Kampf and other neighbors like Lisa George and Jack Mason say they know little about the vandalism, but they continue to oppose the bus company’s expansion through legitimate means. George authored an online petition that had attracted 790 digital signatures as of Friday.
About 80 neighborhood residents met with the tour bus operator and city officials yesterday afternoon to learn more about the project and call for reconsideration, although all government approvals and requirements have already been met.
Benedict offered to discuss possible modifications of the wetlands plan and other landscape changes. But community sentiment remained largely opposed to the entire expansion project.EndFragment