If the Parkway’s new mantra is “More park, less way” then the rallying cry for improving Eakins Oval might be “More park, less parking.”
With its tall trees, beautiful fountains, and huge bronze statue of George Washington, Eakins Oval has the makings of a beautiful park that has for too long been used as a parking lot at the center of a super-sized speedway roundabout.
But this summer Eakins Oval is getting overhauled on a shoestring budget, with interventions that promise to make it more of a place for “dependable serendipity,” to borrow an idea from the public input sessions for the More Park, Less Way plan. At "The Oval" that formula will include an ever-changing mix of programs - from fitness to entertainment - alongside games and a "beach" for kids of all ages, food trucks and a weekly beer garten, and plenty of spots to just relax and enjoy summer.
The idea is to turn Eakins Oval into an inviting public space through programming and lighter, quicker, cheaper physical interventions. Those interventions - painted pavement, movable furniture, mobile food, and heavy programming - are essentially a scaled-up version of what we’re already seeing around town in our parklets and pedestrian plazas, and draw inspiration from what’s being done at The Porch at 30th Street Station.
The Oval is an early action step stemming from More Park, Less Way, the plan released this spring by the city and PennPraxis* that aims to bring new life to some of the Parkway’s underused spaces and create shared public spaces for the neighborhoods that surround the Parkway. The plan identified the potential for Eakins Oval to become a new node that serves to link neighborhoods and institutions by using it as a “seven-acre flexible civic space” in the near-term.
Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, describes the kickoff summer at The Oval as five weeks of fun, accomplished through temporary interventions, in partnership with the Fairmount Park Conservancy on a slim $180,000 budget from the city and philanthropic sources (most notably the William Penn Foundation**). It is timed to run between the 4th of July festivities and the Made in America concert in August.
This spring, LRSLA Studio (which also designed The Porch for University City District) was hired to design the program for The Oval this summer. The designers divided The Oval into three main sections, delineated by different uses and marked by pavement: the beach, the blanket and the boardwalk.
When The Oval opens on July 17 we’ll see bright orange Adirondack chairs, blue and green movable café tables and chairs, white umbrellas, a rotating cast of food trucks, ping pong and gigantic game boards (Twister, chess, checkers), as well as misters and sandboxes. And at the stage area on The Oval’s eastern end, there will be porta-potty cabanas (continuing the shore theme).
The Oval’s central strip will be flanked by 48 bright orange flags, making it hard to miss, along with streetlight banners designed like beach towels, and brightly colored lanterns hung in the trees.
Focht said this summer’s five-week long experiment in programming The Oval is really a test to see what people respond to and what works in the space. (Fingers are crossed for a less rainy July and August.) Based on what works and what doesn’t this year, expect next year’s iteration to be a bit different.
So far this summer’s schedule, which is still being firmed up, includes mommy-and-me yoga and chair yoga for seniors; art projects courtesy of Fleisher’s Color Wheels and the Clay Studio’s Claymobile; a (Kevin) BACON Fest complete with pig roast and Footloose screening; bier garten Thursdays; movies/food on Fridays; concerts on Saturdays; and more. (Parks and Rec staffers will be tweeting out schedule updates and sharing updates on The Oval’s Facebook page, so stay tuned for more specifics.)
And to ensure that we all can cross the Parkway safely during events, there will be extra Police presence directing pedestrian traffic to signaled crosswalks.
Even amid the busy prep work for the 4th of July festivities, Parks and Rec staffers have been scooting around town, cashing in on summer sales to furnish The Oval, making runs to four Target stores to buy up more than 40 orange Adirondack chairs for $14.99 apiece (on a day they happened to be on sale) and hitting up Lowes for patio umbrellas. Parks crews have already started wiring the lanterns, putting in underground water lines for the misters, and building sand boxes.
Programming will run July 17-August 18, after which Eakins Oval will be repainted and return to its life as a parking lot for six months of the year. Revenue from the parking lot will help raise funds to program The Oval next summer.
This fall The Oval will be revived as a public space over two long weekends in September and October, Focht said. Come next summer the hope is to program The Oval for five months, not just five weeks.
* PlanPhilly is a project of PennPraxis.
** PlanPhilly is funded by the William Penn Foundation
Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.