Battle Over Fox Chase Expansion Continues

Amy B. Ginensky argued in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas’ Orphans’ Court Thursday that the Fox Chase neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia is doubly blessed to have both Fox Chase Cancer Center and Burholme Park within its environs, and a proposed plan to lease part of the 70-acre park to Fox Chase for an expansion of its medical campus will allow the neighborhood to continue to reap its dual blessings.

But during a hearing held Thursday in front of Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron about the city’s plan to sublease part of the park to the cancer center, counsel for a group of taxpayers and neighbors opposing the plan argued that the city undertook a public trust when it agreed to accept the park when Robert W. Ryerss willed his country seat to the city to be used as a public-access park for perpetuity.

Samuel C. Stretton, a West Chester solo practitioner, said that Herron must consider what the park means as a public trust and what it means as a preserved green space in this day and age.

Ginensky is of Pepper Hamilton and represents Fox Chase in Estate of Robert W. Ryerss. Co-counsels from Pepper are Charles S. Marion, Kathleen H. Stephenson and Alison Altman Gross.

The city of Philadelphia and Fox Chase are seeking Herron’s approval of deviation of Ryerss’ will giving 48 acres to the city to be used as a public park and the public trust created when the city accepted Ryerss’ 1895 bequest, expanded the park to 70 acres with a later purchase and maintained the park with city funds.

City Council passed an ordinance March 6 in support of the plan to sublease 19.4 acres of the park to Fox Chase.

Much of the bulk of Thursday’s hearing was taken up with testimony of John K. Binswanger, a Fairmount Park Commissioner and president of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Binswanger was the witness of Gerald E. Wallerstein, a senior attorney with the Philadelphia Law Department. Wallerstein’s co-counsels were Robert Aversa and Larry Copeland.

Under questioning, Binswanger noted that most of the area that would be given to Fox Chase is a golf driving range.

Stretton argued in his opening remarks that the current golf driving range will bring the city more money from concessions than from the millions of dollars in proposed, staggered payments from Fox Chase.

According to court papers, Fox Chase could pay up to $12.25 million in development fees, base rent and additional consideration.

Binswanger said that the deal requires Fox Chase to buy 19 substitute acres for another park, but it has been difficult to find another suitable open space in 10th City Council District, which is represented by city Councilman Brian J. O’Neill and is home to Burholme Park.

Binswanger also said that Fox Chase’s original request to obtain 39 acres of the park was unacceptable to the park commissioners.

The city argues in court papers that city residents would benefit from Fox Chase’s ability to “continue to be at the forefront of cancer treatment and research,” from the creation of temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs if Fox Chase’s campus expands, and the expansion of the city’s tax base. The city and Fox Chase say the plan is necessary because Fox Chase is bursting at the seems in its current campus, has nowhere else to expand its campus within its residential neighborhood, and may have to move out of the city if it can’t expand at its current locale.

“It’s a fair deal for the city. It’s a fair deal for Fox Chase … the fact they can keep their complex together … is a very advantageous position for Fox Chase to be in,” Binswanger said after he was allowed by Herron to speak to the reasoning he had for supporting the proposed sublease.

Binswanger was a member along with Deborah Goldstein, the ex officio mayor’s representative to the commission, and Commissioner Robert Nix, of a committee that negotiated with Fox Chase about the proposal ultimately approved by the commission and by City Council.

During Stretton’s cross-examination of Binswanger, Stretton hit home repeatedly on the suggestion that there might be conflicts in Binswanger’s involvement because Binswanger’s brother used to serve on Fox Chase’s board, and the conservancy he leads may receive a significant administrative fee in order to hold funds Fox Chase would give toward Burholme Park.

Binswanger said that he didn’t believe he had a conflict of interest.

Stretton’s 13 clients were given standing to intervene in the case and present their opposition to the plan.

The hearing was expected to continue Friday, Aug. 29, and perhaps into a third day on Wednesday, Sept. 10.

— Amaris Elliott-Engel, staff reporter

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