Philadelphia Passes Historic “Soda Tax” to Fund Revamp of Parks

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Eastwick Playground Park / Nicole Westerman

The Philadelphia city council approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. The “soda-tax”, as it is being called, will raise funds for parks and recreation center upgrades, pre-Kindergarten programs, community schools, and the city’s general fund, according to Mayor Jim Kenney.

The city council claims that soda-tax revenue will account for $91 million per year and $386 million over the next five years. About 15 percent of that revenue, or $58 million, is allotted for what the city is calling it’s Rebuild program, which includes parks and recreation center upgrades. Philadelphia’s parks and recreation facilities are notoriously underfunded.

One of the major goals of the Rebuild program is to address equity in the city, according to first deputy managing director Brian Abernathy.

“Everyone, no matter where they live, deserves quality recreation centers, open space and libraries.”

Abernathy added that the Rebuild initiative will conform with Philadelphia’s larger green infrastructure agenda by supporting “broader storm water management, energy efficiency, and sustainability goals.”

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Swing set in McVeigh Park / Nicole Westerman

The bill was not passed without controversy, with opponents claiming it will be levied disproportionately on the poor. Last-minute negotiations designating a portion of the revenue towards shoring up gaps in the city’s budget further stoked opposition to the bill. Its approval has made Philadelphia only the second U.S. city to pass such a tax.

Mayor Kenney had been building political momentum for such an investment in public infrastructure prior to his election last November and financed research to find out what the opportunities are.

Chris Mendel, a landscape architect with Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates, whose team helped lead a cost-estimate analysis of park upgrades, said Mayor Kenney’s staff approached his firm last October to analyze approximately 470 outdoor open spaces owned and operated by Philadelphia parks and recreation. Aided by data from planning and urban design office Interface Studio, Mendel and his team of Lauren Mandel, ASLA, and Patty West, Associate ASLA, had two months to complete the assessment.

“I came up with a survey method and we quickly chose some representative target sites to go see. 82 sites were physically visited. We were done with the assessments by mid-November.” Mendel said that in the waning days of the assessment, two parks staff members joined his team, helping to complete the assessment in time.

“As we finished up, everybody was hungry for numbers: how much this is really going to cost,” Mendel said. He and his team created two cost estimates for each site: One, a basic package that would make each park clean, safe, and ready to use; the second, a deluxe upgrade that would add sustainability and dynamism to the sites. “That’s where we added porous asphalt, nature play and water features.”

Mendel and his team then went over the estimates with seasoned parks staff, whose knowledge he said was invaluable to the process. “What we found was that the costs were not so bad.”

The portion of the soda tax revenue designated for Rebuild will be used to service debt on $300 million in bonds that the city is seeking, which will in turn be used with other private and public sources to help fund the project, according to Philadelphia Magazine.

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