Economics

Atop Its Predecessor, Laying Out Future Options for Philly’s Reading Viaduct

It’s an abandoned railway line that has been sprouting weeds since the 1980s. It’s right in the heart of a faded industrial district in a historic old city on the East Coast. The elevated tracks, with their patina of rust, provide spectacular views of downtown.

Sounds like New York City’s High Line before its renovation, right?

Except this rail line, the Reading Viaduct, is in Philadelphia. And while many in the city are pushing plans to convert it into a park with similarities to its counterpart in Manhattan, these advocates have made it clear that they are not looking for a High Line clone.

“We pride ourselves on not being New York,” Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Philly business improvement district Center City District, said during an event on Monday that took place in New York, on the High Line, but had an unwavering focus on that sometimes-maligned city to the south.

“Beyond the High Line: Transforming Philadelphia” was the first in a series of talks that the non-profit group Friends of the High Line is holding this summer to foster discussion about the way communities can transform public space in cities around the country. The speakers were Levy and Leah Murphy of Interface Studio, who heads up the Philly-based group Friends of the Rail Park. Together, the pair presented a vision of how a park located on Philadelphia’s old rail tracks could help bring activity to an area near the city core and provide much-needed green space for a growing number of residents in the adjacent neighborhoods.

While Philly’s abandoned rail line is often referred to as the Reading Viaduct, the viaduct itself is only one section of a three-mile system of tracks that branches across the street grid just north of the downtown. Built in the 1890s at the height of rail’s golden age, these tracks served passenger and freight trains heading for the Reading Terminal head house and train shed. Those structures themselves have been repurposed, and now contain the Reading Terminal Market — a public market where more than 100 vendors operate seven days a week — and the gateway to the city’s convention center.

Meanwhile, more and more people have been moving to the area near the rail tracks. And yet, as picturesque as the viaduct is in its decayed state, Levy said, “it’s a blighting influence on the neighborhood.”

And so, since 2010, Levy’s group has been studying what to do with this derelict but evocative piece of infrastructure. Inspired by the High Line’s example, and drawing on the vision and efforts of the volunteer Reading Viaduct Project, Center City District used funding from local foundations and the city to look at the options. One of the key findings? “It’s cheaper to renovate than demolish,” Levy said.

That affirmation led to the plan that is now going forward, a Phase 1 renovation of the 9th Street portion of the viaduct, six-tenths of a mile long and encompassing 6.95 acres. The design, by Studio| Bryan Hanes and Urban Engineers, includes quirky elements such as huge, industrial-style swinging benches — kind of a porch swing for the rehabbed infrastructure age.

“We want to respect the industrial character,” said Levy, emphasizing that he saw this as a neighborhood park providing green space for nearby residents. “This is not a tourist amenity.”

Levy said that the plan is now in the permitting stages and that construction could begin in 2014. He described the first phase, costing an estimated $7-8 million, as a “proof of concept” that will serve as an enticement for further expansion of the park. “If you build a piece of it, as you did in New York,” Levy said, “Phase 2 and Phase 3 become inevitable.”

Levy was followed by Leah Murphy, whose group, Friends of the Rail Park, is advocating an expansive vision of what the future could hold for the sections of track to the west of the 9th Street Branch of the Viaduct. Some of these sections are below grade, and one 3,000-foot stretch is an underground tunnel, pierced by shafts that let in daylight. Much of the line abuts Fairmount Park, which sees 10 million visitors per year. Murphy said that a rail park on this section, known as the City Branch, could become an important connector to that more traditional space.

Instead of seeing the varying topography of the City Branch as a detriment, Murphy takes it as a design opportunity. Of the stretch in the tunnel, with its arched masonry and its rays of light from above, she said, “The space feels very spiritual.”

Murphy cites another rail-renovation project as an example of what can be done to make below-grade space inviting and safe: Paris’s Promenade plantée. This lushly landscaped former rail right-of-way is proof, she says, of just how thoroughly a depressed track can be transformed.

Renderings commissioned by the group show a green and open-feeling park. “It doesn’t feel like a scary space down there,” said Murphy, who emphasized that at four tracks instead of two, the Philadelphia rail bed is significantly wider than the one on the High Line.

Murphy’s group, which would like to see some of the rail line’s wild natural feeling, is putting special emphasis on what she referred to as “cultivating consensus” and a “dialogue of design.” And given the nature of the task ahead — the estimated cost of the project is about $29 million — Friends of the Rail Park will need to be able to build alliances with a diverse group of stakeholders.

The three miles of track in question are not all under the control of a single owner. One of the players is the regional transit agency, SEPTA, which has talked about putting a bus rapid transit route in a part of the right-of-way that Murphy and her allies would rather see as part of the park. The Friends advanced their cause, however, when they successfully lobbied the city planning commission to include the park as one of the options in its forthcoming Philadelphia 2035 plan.

Funding will, of course, be an issue for all the different aspects of the project. Levy said his group is looking to the state for money to complete Phase 1. Murphy said that she thought funding for alternative transit and trail connections could be used for some portions of the park.

After the talk was over, Levy said that he saw the park as a driving force for the revitalization of the surrounding area. “I see it as an amenity for the neighborhood,” he said. “I think we need to build the park first and it will leverage the development.”

Keeping things down-to-earth and authentically Philly will remain a priority, Levy said, again drawing a contrast to the High Line. “We don’t need a Mercedes,” he said. Later he added, “But if there’s any extra money in NYC, Leah and I will take it back to Philadelphia with us.”

Watch A Video of the Full Talk

This post is sponsored by Friends of the High Line.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.

Tags: philadelphia, economic development, parks, public space, septa, high line, green space, reading viaduct, philadelphia2035, friends of the high line