On July 13, Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, along with Friends of FDR Park, celebrated breaking ground on FDR Park’s Anna C. Verna Playground, an inclusive, world-class destination play space named to honor late City Council President Verna. Our Executive Director Maura McCarthy was joined by Mayor Jim Kenney; Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell; State Representative Regina Young; Friends of FDR Park President Barb Capozzi; Councilperson Mark Squilla; and Maryanne Mahoney, Verna’s longtime Chief of Staff; and Verna’s brother, Sonny, and her nieces and nephews. Former Councilperson Jannie Blackwell was also in attendance. Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson, unable to attend, was represented by staff member Tiphanie White.
In addition to the dignitaries, honored guests included students from Point Breeze’s Brilliant Mind Academy and the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia’s summer program, who jumped on trampolines and played with a parachute before the event and enjoyed water ice after.
The Anna C. Verna Playground, Lovell said, will “be completely innovative, completely different, with custom-made equipment … that is going to reflect the diverse communities, the diverse habitats, and the diverse uses of the park itself.”
The $5 million, 2.15 acre playground will be located near the Pattison Lagoon and the park’s future Welcome Center, and will replace an older play space that is prone to flooding and often unusable for visiting families. The playground is the second project to begin construction through the FDR Park Plan and is scheduled to open in Summer of 2023.
The new playground will be graded to mitigate flooding and soggy conditions and will have a nearly 100% water permeable natural, cork-based surface. All of its nature-based play equipment will be handicapped accessible, including an all-ages, 20-swing mega-swing set overlooking the lagoon; log and boulder scrambles; rolling hills with slides; and two massive tree trunks incorporated into tree houses. Other features include nine picnic sites and a picnic pavilion; seat walls overlooking the play area; and new landscaping including native and pollinator-friendly plantings including 31 new trees.
The Anna C. Verna Playground is part of the FDR Park Plan, a larger project that will reimagine the 348-acre site balancing activity, nature and water. The plan’s designers worked with park users and neighbors and took into account the park’s unique topography to reimagine a climate resilient park for 21st century Philadelphians.
Young, one of the local lawmakers who helped secure funding for the FDR Park plan from the Commonwealth, said the park is one of the reasons she works so hard in Harrisburg. “I love open spaces,” she said. “I believe that it brings such a wholeness to who we are.”
The playground is being named to honor late City Council President Verna, who was the first woman in that powerful position, holding the office from 1999 until her retirement in 2011. According to Lovell, naming the space after the legendary politician was very important to Mayor Kenney, who said Verna was like a sister to him. Verna, who died at age 90 in 2021, was a South Philadelphia native who grew up playing in FDR Park. She learned the importance of public service from her father, City Councilperson William Cibotti, whose seat she won in a special election after his death in 1976.
Capozzi predicted the new space would become “a destination playground and … one more amenity for our beautiful city to claim.” It will also “forever be a memorial to (Verna’s) kindness, devotion, dedication and generosity of spirit.”
Mahoney, a friend who also served as Verna’s Chief of Staff for 25 years, said Verna was a consummate professional dedicated to her district.
“She worked with community leaders, business owners, everyone and anyone who could make the 2nd district a better place, but she always had a special place in her heart for the children,” Mahoney said.
She described being with the Council President and visiting the southwest Philadelphia recreation center named for Verna’s father.
“She’d get out of the car, go in and talk to the kids, see what they were up to,” Mahoney said. “It was great to see her in her element. I believe Council President Verna would be moved by this tribute… to be honored in the same way her father was, in a way that benefits the children of the 2nd council district who were so close to her.”
While we eagerly await the opening of the new playground, Fairmount Park Conservancy has partnered with Tiny WPA to introduce a Pop-Up Play Space at the FDR Park Clubhouse & provide more opportunities for free play in the meantime. The Pop-Up Play Space will remain open and available to the public until the permanent Anna C. Verna Playground opens in Summer 2023.
Funders for the Anna C. Verna Playground include the City of Philadelphia, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Widener Memorial Foundation.
Photos by Ellen Miller / Philadelphia Parks & Recreation
Renderings by WRT
Want to learn more? Join Maura McCarthy, Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Executive Director and Justin DiBerardinis, FDR Park Manager on a Walk and Talk tour to learn more about the FDR Park Plan in-person.