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Q&A with Drexel Alum Tony Bracali: The New Paine's Park at Schuylkill Banks

Architect Anthony Bracali
Tony Bracali at Paine's Park during the early stages of construction, fall 2012. Photo by Steve Boyle.

May 21, 2013

On a once-vacant lot nestled between Eakins Oval and 24th Street, a huge public skate park—one of the most expensive and expansive skate parks ever built—has taken shape along the banks of the Schuylkill River.

And it was architect and Drexel alum Anthony Bracali’s plan that, upon completion, passersby would stroll by or through the park, take in the intricacies of the design he spent years perfecting, and realize not at all that the space they’re looking at is supposed to be used almost exclusively by skateboarders. Judging by a recent review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it seems Bracali was successful.

DrexelNow checked in with Bracali, president of Friday Architects/Planners in Philadelphia, to find out how his vision for the new Paine’s Park became a reality.

What was the original vision for the Paine’s Park?

The whole idea here was to make this look not at all like what a skate park is supposed to look like. What we wanted to do was create a great public space that just happened to be a skate park.

What we want to do is create spaces there for activities beyond skateboarding, and hopefully create a merger between those two different uses. Hopefully, that will allow the space to be more usable and sustainable over time.

This whole project presented a unique opportunity. I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on some major projects over the years (on the design team that drew up plans for Citizens Bank Park and as lead designer for the Chester Performing Arts Center), but few projects have provided such a high-visibility stage for me to showcase my ideas on how architecture should contribute to the world around it.

Can you describe the park and some of its features?

The $4.5-million project covers 2.5 acres along the recently developed Schuylkill River Park, and welcomes both skaters and non-skaters with a unique blend of elements: There are skate-friendly surfaces, but plenty of seating for the public as well, including a somewhat informal amphitheater space. I wanted to not only give the city’s skateboarders a great place to play, but also build a beautiful, welcoming space along the undervalued Schuylkill.

You’ve mentioned that your Drexel education played a large part in making this project a success. Can you talk more about that? 

Creating civic-minded spaces has been the focus of my career almost from the start. And by start, I mean all the way back to my childhood. I knew I wanted to be an architect by the time I was in the fourth grade, and by the time I was ready to apply for college, I knew I wanted to go to school in a city. As a native of Allentown, Drexel was an obvious choice.

I have to credit Drexel for helping me gain an early foothold in architecture—as an undergrad, I co-oped with Venturi Scott Brown Architects—and for allowing me to figure out what kind of work I actually wanted to do. I realized I was never going to cut it as a “corporate architect.” I wanted to create spaces for real people in real neighborhoods, and I wanted to make an impact, especially here in Philadelphia, because this is where I live with my family.

What was your reaction to the review of your design from Inquirer columnist Inga Saffron?

A lot of people in the general public regard her reviews as very informed, so it was great to get a good review from her. She’s kind of given it an endorsement, so hopefully that will make people in the general public receive the project well and view it in the way we’ve tried to present it.

How do you feel now that the project is complete?

It’s a little bit surreal, mostly because it took so long. I was hired to do the project in 2004, and I had been thinking about it since 2002. It’s actually very strange to be out there now and to be standing there in it because I’ve been looking at it in 3D models and the on computer for so long. I keep thinking I am going to go back the next day and it won’t be there.

The thing for me now is to see how it’s being used—I’m really hoping that people embrace it. The park is kind of an untested idea; it’s a bit of an experiment. But all of us involved have faith that the public will view it in that way that we hoped that would.

A grand opening ceremony open to the public will take place Wednesday, May 22 at 4 p.m. at Paine's Park, located at Eakins Oval and 24th Street.