Editor’s Note: After publishing the first design views of a new park on the SEPTA spur, we received a great deal of reader feedback. We shared it with Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, the organization spearheading the project, and invited him to discuss issues of project scope and cost with our readers.
Visit New York’s High-Line and you’ll probably return with determination: “We should do that here!” But the overwhelming sentiment from residents and businesses in the Reading Viaduct area is not to reproduce the $170 million Mercedes Benz expanding in lower Manhattan.
Partly, this is realism. What New York is doing is extraordinary. But Philadelphia’s pockets are not as deep. Our local design ethos also values authenticity and industrial funk. “We have something unique here,” notes one resident, “let’s celebrate its historical industrial character.” Then too, this isn’t Schuylkill River Park. An improved Viaduct will not be connector; there are few destinations at either stub end. Nor can it be primarily a commuting path for cyclists and pedestrians. Rather, think neighborhood park–a focal and defining feature for the diverse communities emerging between Vine Street and Fairmount Avenue. Visitors, joggers and cyclists will be welcome. But most successful tourism destinations start as valued local assets, and this is certainly the case with the Viaduct Des Arts in Paris, a better comparable for our project.
Still, the views from the Viaduct, curving across the grid, are breathtaking.
We asked future users of the Viaduct park “What activities do you think you will do most frequently when visiting the improved Viaduct?” Responses were definitive (for complete survey results, click HERE) and by far most respondents said they would “Relax and enjoy the open the space.” “Eat a meal or snack was a distant second.” “Bike” or “exercise” lagged much further behind. Provided with multiple options, respondents chose keep it simple. “It would be wonderful to be hit by a field of green and flowers; nothing is more immediate and satisfying, especially in the city.” All this is quite logical, notes landscape architect Bryan Hanes, for a neighborhood far from William Penn’s four squares, from Fairmount Park, and the rivers.
How Did We Get Here?
In 2010, CCD began working with the community-based Reading Viaduct Project and the City’s Departments of Commerce and Parks & Recreation to review the site’s history and evaluate options for the abandoned elevated tracks that runs in two segments from Vine Street to Fairmount Avenue.
The CCD was drawn to the project by local advocates Sarah McEneaney and John Struble, who for years have led impromptu tours. They imagine an amenity for residents and workers in the expanding communities of Callowhill and Chinatown. With 32% of local land still vacant, they envision a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood like none other near downtown.
With grants in 2010 from the William Penn Foundation and Poor Richard’s Charitable Trust, the CCD commissioned a feasibility analysis of the entire Viaduct with consultants Urban Engineers, Cecil Baker + Partners, and Friends of the High Line, NYC. The City engaged Jones Lang LaSalle. The team evaluated total and partial demolition and several renovation scenarios, assessing impacts on local real estate and community development.
Renovation turns out to be far less expensive than demolition ($50 million) and environmental liabilities can be minimized by capping and covering contaminated soil beneath the tracks (for a report summary, click HERE). Presentations were made to the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and at a public meeting at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
In 2011, with a new round of foundation grants, the CCD, partnering with the City, commissioned a schematic design by Studio Bryan Hanes and Urban Engineers, focusing on only the smaller SEPTA-owned spur. A fall 2011 neighborhood meeting elicited preferences and aspirations. In January 2012, designers returned with multiple options. A subsequent on-line survey, referenced above, drew 59 extended replies. Respondents strongly favored informal green space, plenty of grass, flowering plants, room to walk and sit. They wanted industrial authenticity that complied with modern safety, code, and access requirements.
In March 2012, the team incorporated these preferences (view them HERE). The community response was enthusiastic for an elevated green gathering place with scenic overlooks, serving as the community’s front porch. The cost of the schematic alternative selected would be $6-8 million.
The next phase, funded by a City Commerce Department grant to the CCD, will produce bid documents by the end of 2012 for the SEPTA-owned portion from Callowhill to 13th and Noble. Project partners are now seeking sources for construction financing and a mechanism for funding long-term maintenance. Negotiations are on-going between the City and Reading International for the larger portion of the Viaduct, which lends itself to a broader civic planning process.
About the author
Paul R. Levy is the President & CEO of the Center City District (CCD). The CCD provides cleaning, security and marketing services for Philadelphia’s central business district and adjacent areas, completing $68 in capital improvements in the last 15 years. Most recently, the CCD built Café Cret, renovating the surrounding park; renovated Collins Park; is completing the renovations of Sister Cities Park and is transforming Dilworth Plaza. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.