Mayfair native Kathryn Ott Lovell is loving her job as commissioner of the city Department of Parks and Recreation.
“I love being able to make a difference, move the department forward and be responsive to the citizens,” she said. “Having a citizen-centric department is important to me. Every week, it seems I’m doing a groundbreaking or ribbon cutting.”
Lovell, 44, grew up on the 2900 block of Disston St. She attended St. Matthew Elementary School and St. Hubert High School, graduating in 1992. She earned degrees in philosophy and communications at the University of Scranton.
In 1998, she returned to St. Hubert, working as the director of institutional advancement, handling admissions and fundraising.
In 2005, she went to work as chief advancement officer for the city’s Mural Arts Program.
In 2011, she became executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that raises money for projects and programs throughout the Fairmount Park system.
Soon after taking that job, she was disappointed to learn that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia planned to close St. Hubert due to declining enrollment. A member of the school advisory board, she helped lead a campaign that raised more than $1.3 million to save ths school, which the archdiocese ultimately spared.
Though she works long hours at Parks and Rec, she tries to help her alma mater when she can.
“I’m in close touch with Lizanne,” Lovell said of school president Lizanne Pando.
Lovell stayed at the Fairmount Park Conservancy until Mayor-elect Jim Kenney selected her in December 2015 to head Parks and Recreation. She had big shoes to fill, as Mike DiBerardinis was leaving to become city managing director.
“It’s a really big system,” she said. “We have an insane number of rec centers. It’s a lot. The big reason I took the job was the mayor’s commitment to parks and rec.”
Lovell and her staff oversee 10,000 acres of land, more than 800 fields and courts, 150 rec centers (New York has 50), 140 parks, 130 spraygrounds, 74 pools, five golf courses, five ice rinks, five older adult centers, three environmental centers and 230 miles of trail.
“The parks and recreation staff are extraordinary people, many from the Northeast,” she said.
Lovell is also appreciative of the 120 Friends groups, along with rec center advisory councils and thousands of youth sports coaches.
“They’re incredible,” she said. “Volunteers help staff our system. No other city in the country has that. It’s unparalleled. We owe a tremendous debt to these folks.”
It’s not all work for Lovell. She balances her work with family time. She and her husband, Andrew, live in West Philadelphia. He works in Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management. They have two children. Lucy, 11, attends Girard Academic Music Program. Jo, 5, is in kindergarten at St. Francis de Sales.
As an appointed city official, Lovell’s tenure is tied to that of Kenney, who is seeking a second term this year.
“He’s a great boss. He’s really, really supportive. He has a heart and passion for rec centers, parks and playgrounds,” she said.
This year is expected to be a big one for the city’s Rebuild initiative. Some $500 million – generated by the beverage tax, a grant from the William Penn Foundation and fundraising – will upgrade parks, rec centers and libraries.
Another highlight of 2019 will be the fourth annual Philadelphia International Unity Cup, a soccer competition featuring 52 teams, representing countries from around the world.
Also this summer, Camp Philly will return. Parks and Rec sends 200 kids to a low-cost, one-week camp in the Pocono Mountains.
Lovell is excited about the recent news that the William Penn Foundation has granted $2 million to Riverfront North Partnership in support of the creation and activation of a new 10-acre riverfront park in Bridesburg. She said Tom Branigan did a good job as executive director of Riverfront North (formerly the Delaware River City Corporation) before retiring, adding that Stephanie Phillips is doing well as his replacement.
“They’re a great partner,” she said. “Tom Branigan built a great organization.”
Lovell is also excited about the partnership between St. Hubert and its across-the-street neighbor, Russo Park, likening it to partnerships between Little Flower and Hunting Park and Father Judge and Ramp Playground.
The city is helping St. Hubert build athletic fields. There will be a turf field for the soccer, lacrosse and field hockey teams. The two softball fields will be rehabbed, allowing the varsity and JV teams to play at the same time. The tennis courts will be renovated.
The state is providing $250,000 for work to include construction of pedestrian walkways and basketball courts; installation of adult fitness station equipment with required safety surfacing; Americans with Disabilities Act access; and landscaping and sign improvements.
“It’s going to be great for the school,” Lovell said.
Looking back at all of her roles, she thanks longtime educator Joanne Walls, who was principal when she was at St. Hubert, for telling her she had the potential to be a great leader.
“That stuck with me,” she said.
One of the events Lovell looks forward to each year is the Women in Leadership Conference, organized by Holy Family University and longtime Catholic high school teachers union boss Rita Schwartz. She speaks to girls who are enrolled in archdiocesan high schools.
Lovell is proud, as a woman, to be in a prominent position of leadership. She recalls growing up when the late City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski was a Northeast institution, but women in power were few and far between.
“I think it’s really important for young women in the Northeast to have role models who are in positions of leadership,” she said. ••