Long-dark East Park Reservoir gets new life

Oden, a great horned owl, was a featured attraction at the Discovery Center launch, as was a 30-foot climbing wall. The plan for the $17 million Discovery Center was jointly crafted by the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound.

A forlorn urban reservoir that became a migratory oasis for birds, even as people were banned from its banks, will be reborn in a preservation project launched Tuesday by Mayor Nutter in Strawberry Mansion.

The $17 million Discovery Center project is to open by early 2017 at the western basin of East Park Reservoir, an enormous lake that was once part of the Philadelphia water-supply system.

The basin rises high above 33d Street at Oxford Street, and extends for blocks through the neighborhood where the saxophonist John Coltrane once lived. It is being reimagined under a plan jointly crafted by the National Audubon Society and Outward Bound.

Offices for the two groups will rise on the 50-acre site, along with a canoe dock, observation platforms overlooking the 37-acre lake, and a High Ropes Challenge Course for children under 18 who take part in Outward Bound's programs.

The goal is for the 4,200 Philadelphia youngsters who participate each year in Outward Bound to be inspired, along with birders and the public.

"Incredible things will happen at this location," Nutter told an audience that included fellow speakers Janet Haas, chairwoman of the William Penn Foundation, and soon-to-be Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis.

Far from that VIP lectern, a less-visible hero lurked amid Tuesday's hullabaloo. Mount Airy native and lifelong birder Keith Russell had a major role in rescuing this abandoned place nearly three decades ago.

As Russell stood along the fenced banks of the man-made lake, high above the street and surrounded by the greenery of Fairmount Park, he recalled discovering that it had become a respite for migratory birds from Canada even as it deteriorated from neglect.

"People have been coming here to look at water fowl since the beginning of the 20th century," Russell said, citing references he found in old papers while working for the Academy of Natural Sciences. "This is one of the largest bodies of water in the city."

Russell ordered the first-ever winter bird census. When he sent someone in for the first time in January 1987, an amazing discovery was made at the oasis on the edge of then-vacant rowhouses and empty factories.

"Ducks," Russell said. "A lot of ducks."

Canvasback ducks, to be exact, had made it their main pit stop along the Eastern seaboard.

A decade later, the Water Department began draining the basin. Russell and others acted swiftly to stop the catastrophe.

He and three others had an emergency meeting with the water commissioner under then-Mayor Ed Rendell.

"We had no idea, in the long term, that this would eventually be a site for Audubon," said Russell, now a program manager for urban conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania.

The state's Audubon Society branch, based in Montgomery County, had the idea for reimagining the reservoir over a decade ago. It even began lining up financial backing. But after receiving a $2.5 million state grant with the help of DiBerardinis, who was working as environmental secretary for Rendell, the project lost momentum. Plans stalled when the economy crashed in 2008.

Audubon Pennsylvania, under executive director Phil Wallis, then teamed with Philadelphia Outward Bound School, which itself had outgrown a small nearby building to run wilderness programs for urban youth.

Together, and with support from Haas at William Penn - which for years had sought to improve the city's green spaces - money began to flow to the project. Wallis and his counterpart at Outward Bound, Katie Newsom Pastuszek, were ecstatic as they took the lectern Tuesday.

"Katie," Wallis said, turning to Pastuszek, "You've got to pinch me, sister, because this is unbelievable."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431 @Panaritism

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