Unsettling roots

Residents express concern over proposed PWD tree project for sidewalk next to Palmer Cemetery

A voice for the cemetery: Jim Kingsmill, trustee for Palmer Cemetery, raises concerns with a proposed PWD project that would be installed along Palmer Street.

By Melissa Komar

The weather was mild, but tension was high at Palmer Cemetery Wednesday during a meeting between residents and the Philadelphia Water Department.

PWD presented information about a proposed project that would include planting eight trees next to the cemetery along Palmer Street.

Jim Kingsmill, trustee for Palmer Cemetery, commenced the meeting voicing general concern about the project.

“We are not against trees, we have 55 in the cemetery,” he said. “The trees they are proposing for the pavement are supposed to be maintained by the Water Department. That may be, I don’t know. But that tends to be a problem.”

Tiffany Ledesma, public engagement team manager for PWD, spoke about Green City, Clean Waters, the 25-year city initiative that brings project such as
the one on Palmer Street to neighborhoods.

In 2011, PWD and the city entered into an agreement with the state and the federal government to clean up the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and the program was created because of the agreement, according to Ledesma.

Because much of Philadelphia is operating on a combined sewer system — the wastewater from your home drains into the same pipe that collects stormwater from the streets — PWD installs projects to better manage stormwater to prevent overflow into the Delaware River.

Since the program started, PWD has installed more than 1,000 projects that has reduced pollutants entering the Delaware River by approximately 1.5 billion gallons.

Ledesma stressed the project proposed on Palmer Street was part of the citywide program and PWD was not targeting Palmer Cemetery, rather the department is fulfilling a federally-mandated agreement.

“We want to make sure you feel you are well-informed about the project,” she said. “I’ll make sure I capture everything tonight and take it back to PWD. We’re open to work with you. We’re willing to hear your complaints.”

The purpose of the project for Palmer Street is to collect excess rainwater from the surrounding streets.

Maggie Dunn, community planner for PWD, presented specifics on the project.

A tree trench would be installed along Palmer Street, which would include an underground trench, filled with stone. Eight trees would be planted in the trench. The pavement would be dug up and replaced as part of the project. The trench would cover a space of approximately 16,000 square feet and could capture about 10,000 gallons of rainwater.

Maggie Dunn presents specifics about the PWD project for Palmer Street as residents listen at Palmer Cemetery.

Dunn estimated the project would take about three weeks.

Because there are not any underground or overhead utility lines, the section of Palmer Street along the cemetery was an ideal location for the project, according to Dunn.

While there may not be any power lines underneath the sidewalk, some residents are concerned there may be human remains.

Local historian Ken Milano spoke briefly about how cemeteries constructed in the 1800s did not have sidewalks and sidewalks installed later may have been placed over former cemetery grounds, and, potentially graves.

Doug Mooney, archeologist, president of the Philadelphia Archeological Forum and historic designation committee member on the Philadelphia Historical Commission, supported that claim.

“Any cemetery that was established prior to the installation of public sidewalks, I can almost guarantee that that cemetery extends to the curb,” he said. “Any excavation in those areas would likely impact that. In this particular instance, I would be exceedingly cautious.”

Because the cemetery is on the registry of historic places, Mooney suggested the project be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Besides unearthing human remains, installing the trees was a concern.

While the project includes eight trees, Ledesma said the number could be reduced if residents felt strongly about having fewer trees.

“Can it be zero?,” Kingsmill countered.

“It potentially could be if residents on the street feel strongly about it,” Ledesma said. “That’s not the plan, but we are open to suggestions.”

The additional trees would also be a magnet for more dog waste, Kingsmill said.

“The problem is all the dogs piss up along the fence,” he said. “Now what you’re asking us to allow them to do is to go up along the fence and against the trees. We’re going to have a 4-foot space to walk down that’s going to have a great odor on both sides.”

The section of Palmer Street where the PWD project would be located.

Kingsmill expressed doubt about the reason for the section of Palmer Street being chosen for the project.

“In the last 15 years, how much construction has gone on in our neighborhood?,” Kingsmill said. “It’s getting to the point where they are putting 72 units with the potential for two bathrooms in each where there once was one bathroom. The type of thing that you’re doing here is to help offset the additional load on our sewer system from all the construction. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s part of it. What you’re planning here is mandate to deal with the overabundance of construction.”

Kingsmill also expressed frustration he had not been notified about the project until June 15 despite it being planned for two years.

Both Ledesma and Dunn both apologized and said PWD had mistakenly contacted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which does not have any affiliation with the cemetery.

“Six and a half years ago, I took this on and got some help from PTSSD and we started doing things in the cemetery that were needed for forever and a day,” Kingsmill said. “The City of Philadelphia, the Water Department or the Department of Rec, none of them came to our aid with a small or large donation or even to say we were doing a good job here. …I think what you’re trying to sell us is a bill of goods. Why would you come to a place that is 300 years old? You’re coming in here and telling us what we’re doing on our side of the fence isn’t a good enough job.”

Kingsmill asked for the project to be tabled for at least two years to allow for more feasibility studies about the rain water falling along the street.

Ledesma stated the project could be put on hold for two years to conduct more studies and modify the design.

“Based on what I’m hearing, it sounds like we should wait and hold off on this project,” she said. “We’ll make that recommendation to the engineers and be in touch.”

Kingsmill wrapped up the meeting thanking the representatives from PWD, but asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the residents.

“For us, it’s historical. Our families are buried here. My grandparents and great grandparents are buried here,” he said. “Everyone that has lived here for more than 15 to 20 years, for the most part, has family buried here. It’s precious. We don’t want anything to happen to it. What you’re proposing is not just a pavement. It’s our cemetery.”