Jean Gavin walks her dog in a wooded area of Burholme Park graced with 300-year-old trees with roots like elephants' feet. Wrinkled, gray, sturdy and strong, the roots grip the ground of Northeast Philadelphia.
Last week in the park, off Cottman Avenue, leaves of ruby-red and lemon-yellow, apple-green and tawny-brown rustled in the wind. Where the earth slopes to the headwaters of the Tookany, Tacony and Frankford creeks, green stones glittered with diamond-like bits of mica.
"As kids, we used to think it was gold," said Fred Maurer, a member of the Fairmount Park Advisory Council who, as a child, played along the mica-speckled Wissahickon and Pennypack creek beds.
Gavin, 73, and Maurer, 74, are among a group waging a bitter battle to save Burholme Park from the adjacent Fox Chase Cancer Center, which plans to use nearly 20 acres for a new hospital and other structures that would be built over the next two decades.
"They will take away the heart of the park," said Maurer, adding that he and Gavin consider themselves "protectors" of the park.
The two retirees were sued by the cancer center last year when they appealed a zoning variance granted to the hospital to build a cancer-research pavilion on its own land. The hospital dropped its suit after City Council changed the hospital's zoning to make it easier to build the pavilion, now under construction.
In the current battle, Fox Chase, a nationally recognized cancer-research and -treatment center based at Shelmire and Central avenues, already has won approval from Mayor Nutter, Council and a divided Fairmount Park Commission to lease 19.4 acres of the 63-acre park. The lease is for 80 years, with options to renew.
In exchange, Fox Chase would pay $12.25 million to the city, according to Amy Ginensky, an attorney for the cancer center.
Still, some neighborhood residents won't give up.
They challenged the deal in Orphans Court, where Judge John W. Herron recently heard seven days of testimony and is expected to issue a ruling any day.
Samuel Stretton, the attorney representing neighbors fighting the expansion, said he based his arguments on the Public Trust Doctrine, a legal principle that prohibits "selling parkland that is being actively used."
Stretton said the doctrine should trump the city's argument of an "inalienable property right" to sell the park. And he warned: "A lease of 80 years is essentially a sale."
Land was willed to city
The case is in Orphans' Court because most of Burholme Park was willed to the city by Robert W. Ryerss in the 19th century to be "used forever" as a public park. The park was turned over to the city in 1905.
His father, Joseph Waln Ryerss, a railroad tycoon, had built Ryerss Mansion in 1859 as a summer home. Part of Burholme Park, as well as the Ryerss Museum and Library, are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ginensky, the attorney for the cancer center, said it's not a question of making a Solomon-type choice between the park and the hospital.
"I think the way the city has done this, . . . the park still survives and the cancer institute survives," Ginensky said.
But at least one Fairmount Park commissioner disagrees.
"It's a breach of trust of the generous donors who gave that ground to the city for the use and enjoyment of open and green space," said retired Common Pleas Judge Alex Bonavitacola, who voted against leasing the land.
"All the parks in the city are in jeopardy," he added. "If they can sell off a part of Burholme Park, they can sell off any part of the city. It's easy to make a concrete jungle, but it's pretty hard to find new parkland."
For their part, Fox Chase officials say they desperately need a new hospital. "Our facilities are really bursting at the seams," said spokesman Franklin Hoke.
He said that the center treats about 7,500 new patients each year, and that 10 years from now that figure will jump to 12,000.
"It's a climbing curve, and that kind of growth needs new facilities," Hoke said. "We need to grow to pursue cancer-research programs."
Al Taubenberger, the former Republican mayoral candidate who is president of both the Northeast Chamber of Commerce and the Burholme Civic Association, testified in favor of the hospital expansion.
He said he had testified as head of the chamber only, and not on behalf of the civic association, because he didn't want to see "neighbors divided against neighbors."
Some of those neighbors don't want to lose the park, but others see the cancer center as a benefit both as a hospital and a source of jobs, he said.
The center anticipates that its expansion would create 4,000 jobs over the next 20 years.
Hoke, the Fox Chase spokesman, said the center is looking for a site in Delaware, where a newspaper reported in September that the center wants to use part of a state park for a multimillion-dollar building.
But Hoke said Fox Chase is committed to maintaining a presence at its current location.
Meanwhile, Gavin, a cancer survivor, said she understands Fox Chase's need to expand but questions its planned use of the park.