Questions, Possibilities As City Branch Park Planning Advances

 

Image: Leah Murphy, ViaductGreene

With several key factors in flux and a competing transit interest gaining at least some traction, conceptual design for a submerged park along the City Branch railroad being advocated by the group ViaductGreene has evolved from its original focus on a potential access point on North Broad Street to a broader vision extending west to 18th Street, according to advocates and planners involved in the project.

The planning process, led by Richard Roark of the landscape architecture firm Olin Studio and architect Frank Grauman of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, with input from a 40-person community task force, is a result of a service grant to ViaductGreene from the Community Design Collaborative first reported on by the Hidden City Daily in May. Work on the plan began in late June with final design expected to be complete early next year.

“The design,” says ViaductGreene organizer Leah Murphy, a planner and urban designer at Interface Studio, “is responsive to two priorities: connectivity and continuity, establishing a pretty bold connection to Broad Street along the front of the School District Building.”

The front of the School District Building, looking west from the east side of Broad, directly above the City Branch. The “pit,” an open air section of the City Branch owned by Bart Blatstein, is just beyond the low concrete wall at the sidewalk. | Photo: Leah Murphy

That connection, says Murphy, will allow “the landscape of the City Branch”–with its elemental urban industrial materials and spontaneous vegetation–“to bleed into the city and the city landscape to bleed into the City Branch.”

The purpose of integrating design above and below ground, says Liz Maillie, a co-founder of ViaductGreene, is to effect a “shift in mentality, bringing people into the site to see that [an underground park] isn’t unsafe.”

“The first consideration with this project is looking at access–where you can get in,” says Roark, who is also part of Olin’s Dilworth Plaza design team. Beyond the chief access points at the Reading Viaduct and on Broad Street, designers are considering creating access points at two parking garages that service Community College of Philadelphia, an old railroad bridge between 15th and 16th Streets, and on property on the 1500 block owned by Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments.

Open space is needed in this part of the city, says Roark, in part because the area is developing quickly. “We did an analysis of what open space is available in a five minute walk from Broad and Noble and found there is nothing nearby. Adding a civic amenity like this park is a way to set the stage and raise the bar for future development.”

But some of the most critical challenges to realizing a submerged park along the City Branch aren’t about design, concedes Maillie. They have to do with issues of government and politics.

Beyond the predominant question facing the project–whether the 19th century SEPTA-owned rail bed (one of the earliest in the US) should be used as a below-grade park and non-motorized transitway connected to the a future elevated Reading Viaduct park or whether it should be reverted back to transit, as the Philadelphia City Planning Commission recommends in its ongoing Central District Plan–the greatest uncertainty revolves around the primary access point to the park, where the railway heads underground at North Broad Street.

From the east side of Broad (where it elevates into the Viaduct going east), the rail bed continues west under Broad Street directly adjacent to the massive Terminal Commerce Building at Broad and Noble Street. Broad Street in this section is actually a PennDOT-owned bridge due for reconstruction. Among the state transportation agency’s top reconstruction alternatives is to turn the bridge into a road by filling in below it, thereby severing the City Branch from the Viaduct and destroying one of the proposed park’s most important values, connectivity.

Looking east directly under the Broad Street bridge, looking up the ramp leading to the Viaduct. | Photo: Leah Murphy

While it’s unclear after a series of public meetings PennDOT held with various neighborhood stakeholders, the agency reportedly has met with strong resistance to filling in the bridge from the real estate developer Bart Blatstein, who owns a sliver of land between the City Branch and the Terminal Commerce Building on the east side of Broad, extending west (as a ramp) to Inquirer Building, which he also owns and intends to turn into the casino Provence. Filling in under the bridge, Blatstein has said, according to our sources, would limit his ability to service the building–and therefore would infringe on his property rights.

Blatstein, the predominant owner of property alongside the eastern portion of the City Branch to 16th Street, met with ViaductGreene organizers in March and lent his verbal support to the project, agreeing to be a member of the community task force. But he hasn’t responded recently to requests for involvement. Murphy assumes this is because he’s in the middle of trying to land a state gaming a license for Provence and therefore isn’t likely to align himself one way or the other, given the uncertainties around his own project. “He has his poker face on,” she says.

This is looking west from the base of the SEPTA spur. You can see the rail right of way pass below broad street and continue on the west side. This is the sliver of the right of way that Tower owns, alongside the Terminal Commerce Building. | Photo: Charles Anderson

But she also says Blatstein’s initial support came “with the qualification that he can’t visualize how a submerged park could be a nice place. Our hope is that this planning project would help him and others see that this could be a great civic space.”

That task got easier in part because designers have responded to community input, most notably from Community College of Philadelphia, which is engaged in creating a campus master plan. That response has pushed designers’ attention west. Maillie sees the submerged park–in this section an open forest slicing through the cityscape, a kind of magical place, according to several people I’ve spoke with–helping to address the college’s desire to enliven its campus. And vice versa, she says, “the campus will put a lot of energy onto the site.”

“CCP is all around the City Branch in this part,” says Roark. “With something like 37,000 full and part-time students, it seemed like this would be adding a missing quadrangle to campus.”

City Branch looking east from 1700 block | Photo: Patrick Cullina

Roark sees the project potentially as a way for Philadelphians to access the city’s industrial heritage. “This railway is the last vestige of what made Philadelphia Philadelphia–it’s the hidden thing that made the city. In the 19th century no one was afraid to build things–they ran subway lines under the heaviest masonry building in the world [City Hall] and train lines under office buildings and on top of sewers. This is scale of pyramid stuff, but it’s invisible.”

The tension between man and nature is implicit in the designers’ approach to the site, says Roark. “The question is how do we have a contemporary existence that’s not at war with nature? Is there a way to become more integrated with nature?”

Inquirer Building being erected over City Branch, 1924 | Image: PhillyH2O.com

As for the big question about the future of the City Branch, what’s being framed as a public policy choice between a park/bike trail and transit, Maillie says neither side’s proposals have been put to serious cost-benefit analysis. “They don’t have numbers, we don’t have numbers. As an organization, we need to demonstrate economic benefits to the city and to the institutions involved.” But, she adds, “Bus Rapid Transit”–the City Planning Commission recommendation–“or light rail would be great, but how long do we have to wait? Is it smarter for a city that’s trying to grow its population to put something in motion now or wait on some uncertain future?”

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



23 Comments


  1. NickFromGermantown

    Can people please stop with this submerged park nonsense? It’s no secret that Philadelphia needs better rapid transit and the City Branch is screaming that it’s not only possible, but it’s both logistically easy and cheap. Why on earth would we ever even suggest that we take this asset that we have and turn it into something that has an extremely high chance of failure? Why should we put priority into raiding an asset if we can’t get the Reading Viaduct turned into a park?

    Viaduct Greene is well-intentioned, but their ideas are doomed for failure. Let’s stop wasting time talking about a park in this tunnel and get rapid transit moving already.

    • Totally agree….

      The callowhill viaduct should be used for expanding septa or patco mass transit into sections of the city currently underserved. As the loft district expands,the community college thrives, parkway museums and fairmount neighborhood continues to grow and greater use of Fairmount Park a high speed rail systems should make re-use of this existing infastructure.

      The broad St ridge ave spur could be augmented to head west via the viaduct with stations at Broad St , Community college, Library , Rodin/ Barnes, art Museum, and a few stations within fairmount park for Memorial Hall, Mann Center and out under Belmont ave to City Line Ave. or take over the Cynwyn line tracks for this subway expansion.

    • 100% Agreed, they have not even started construction on the Reading Viaduct, why on earth does it make sense to expend critical resources on planning this potentially expensive pet project? If Viaduct Greene really wants to be useful, they should work with SEPTA to create a fantastic transfer station at the broad street spur.

    • Nevermind the fact that we already have one Gallery at Market East.

      Why develop a public underground space when foot traffic, of locals and tourists, already avoid certain blocks or neighborhoods due to their creep-factor?

  2. While the concept has its charms, it makes just as much sense to do this as to reconstruct the canal that the city branch was originally intended to be. Few if any persons would feel safe walking in this deep trench that merely parallels the parkway where there is already ample space and greenery.

    It seems to me an great deal of money is being spent on fantasies. Make the “high line” a reality, sure, but leave the city branch for rapid transit.

  3. Hello nick & Davis ,
    Let’s look at this another way for a moment. Bus rapid transit isn’t even possible , why ? Because you can’t get
    the rapid when at one end these buses have to deal with traffic from the zoo , girard ave , the big white high school , people getting on and off 76 at girard ave. brt is supposed to be SEPERATE from regular traffic , this
    ISN’T . then at the other end it has to deal with all the TRAFFIC around broad , arch , or wherever these
    Planners think it can connect with other forms of mass transit , again….. No rapid here. Then there’s the 5
    stops planned along the submerged route , REALLY , five stops in what ? A mile maybe ? AGAIN…..
    where’s the RAPID ? CCD has spent a lot of money sprucing up museum mile , and plan to spend more.
    And NOW were gonna put visitors in a bus and bring them into the museums thru the basement or back door?
    How does that make any sense ? A BRT. Is supposed to work like a monorail , TOTALLY SEPERATE from
    the rest of the street . Like the transmilenium in Colombia . Maybe you guys don’t have kids , but bike lanes
    On the street DO NOT make a safe route for little ones . The viaduct Greene plan gives a safe and SEPERATED
    park , bike route ,nature trail , alternate transit alternative to philadelphia. unless you take the full tour it’s
    hard to understand how amazing this space will be. So please , visit viaductgreenes site and read up , then take
    the tour and be amazed by this wonderfull urban oasis hiding in plan site

    • Well said. And seconded.

    • NickFromGermantown

      Rapid transit is only not possible if you narrowly define what it is and how it would work. Let me address some of what you say.

      >> “you can’t get the rapid when at one end these buses have to deal with traffic from the zoo , girard ave , the big white high school , people getting on and off 76 at girard ave. brt is supposed to be SEPERATE from regular traffic , this ISN’T”

      It’s very hard for me to understand why it would be so difficult to separate from traffic. On this end of the proposed line, you have Girard Ave with its trolleys, which is actually designed to have its own right-of-way. I can only guess that over the the years that this right-of-way has been ceded to the automobile. Ignored is the fact that the Zoo interchange and traffic is going to be redesigned in coming years, so if rapid transit is going to be a part of the design, then we can figure out how to make it work. If you don’t think that a street car or bus can be effective rapid transit with lots of traffic, I encourage you to visit Prague.

      >> “then at the other end it has to deal with all the TRAFFIC around broad , arch , or wherever these
      Planners think it can connect with other forms of mass transit , again….. No rapid here.”

      This point is very confusing to me. Traffic? The City Branch is submerged. The whole crux of this rapid transit idea is dedicated right-of-way. If this streetcar or bus comes out of the trench to street-level, then we’ll have to build more row for it. That’s as easy as taking away a lane of traffic. Only have buses and emergency personnel be able to us it. Build a curb if you have to and let our police ticket people who abuse that lane.

      >> “Then there’s the 5 stops planned along the submerged route , REALLY , five stops in what ? A mile maybe ? AGAIN….. where’s the RAPID ?”

      Have you ever ridden on the El? Or how about the Broad Street Line between Spring Garden and Lombard-South? The higher density of stops is needed in Center City because 1) it’s dense, 2) there are more things to stop for, 3) stopping isn’t so bad when you don’t have to fight with traffic and traffic signals. Despite the fact that there is thigh that dictates we must have 5 or more stops, when you look at how many other stops there are on our rapid transit lines, 5 stops are actually not that bad anyway.

      >> “CCD has spent a lot of money sprucing up museum mile , and plan to spend more. And NOW were gonna put visitors in a bus and bring them into the museums thru the basement or back door? How does that make any sense ? A BRT. Is supposed to work like a monorail , TOTALLY SEPERATE from
      the rest of the street . Like the transmilenium in Colombia . ”

      I was going to address this, but I don’t get how ViaductGreene supports can claim all of these advantages of separate right-of-way for bicyclists and then come back to the rapid transit supporters to say rapid transit won’t work because there is no separate right-of-way. The City Branch is a submerged trench. There is no more reason to talk about this for much of Center City. And where there is not a different right-of-way, the streets can be reconfigured to make one. Also, by your point, why would we have CCD spend all of this money on the museum district only to have all of these joggers and bicyclists put underground? You can have it both ways.

      >> “Maybe you guys don’t have kids , but bike lanes On the street DO NOT make a safe route for little ones . The viaduct Greene plan gives a safe and SEPERATED park , bike route ,nature trail , alternate transit alternative to philadelphia.”

      So how do you get to ViaductGreene? It’s not like people magically appear and disappear at the beginnings and end of the trail. Biking TO this trail is going to be just as dangerous as it was before and after it would be implemented. I also think that it’s preposterous that we are making the argument that kids should be taking precedence over adults who work throughout the city and tourists who need to get around to expereince our resources. In general, I’d say discourage kids from biking alone in the city is a good thing.

      >> “unless you take the full tour it’s hard to understand how amazing this space will be. So please , visit viaductgreenes site and read up , then take the tour and be amazed by this wonderfull urban oasis hiding in plan site”

      I’m not convinced we live in the same city here. We’re you ever at Dilworth Plaza before it was decided it had to be redone because no one wanted to be in a submerged park? Have you ever been in the underground concourse around the 15th Street El station? How about the underground concourse under Broad Street from City Hall to past Walnut-Locust Station? There is a reason all of these spaces aren’t that nice. They have extremely high barriers of success and we don’t have the immense resources that it would take to make them work – if they could work, that is. Besides the novelty factor, I don’t understand the appeal of an underground park. It’s going to be dark, dank, and smelly. Rest assured that there will be plenty of shady types around – and if there aren’t people will think there are regardless and stay away.

      And one last point. If we can’t get the High Line going (which would obviously work and there are examples of it working), why should we get this one going? What makes ViaductGreene so great that it expands the scope and cost of the High Line such tact it would imperil the High Line from even happening?

      • NickFromGermantown

        A few corrections here that I need to make mainly due to autocorrect…

        – If this streetcar or bus comes out of the trench to street-level, then we’ll have to build more ROW for it.

        – Despite the fact that there is NOTHING that dictates we must have 5 or more stops, when you look at how many other stops there are on our rapid transit lines, 5 stops are actually not that bad anyway.

        – Also, by your point, why would we have CCD spend all of this money on the museum district only to have all of these joggers and bicyclists put underground? You CAN’T have it both ways.

        – WERE you ever at Dilworth Plaza before it was decided it had to be redone because no one wanted to be in a submerged park?

        – (which would MORE obviously work and there are examples of it working)

  4. The best use of the City Branch would be to connect it with the Trolley Lines. Bring trolley traffic down off Girard Avenue and funnel it into the City Branch like the subway-surface lines. The Septa Spur could then be used to bring the trolleys up to street-level and they could loop on 11th-12th street through Market East or whereever you would want to turn the trolleys around. The tracks and wires already exist there.

    In a perfect world you could make this branch light-metro and connect it with the Broad-Ridge Spur, but the western end of the line would be more difficult to justify where to end it in that scenerio.

    You could still have a pedestrian/bike trail that runs along the branch there is plenty of room, but using it exclusively for that purpose is a waste of a perfectly good right-of-way. BRT is a good short-term solution, but we really need to be looking long-term here.

  5. New trolley lines might be too expensive with the current budget, but I think that should be the long-term goal, that’s why I think SEPTA should consider trolleybuses in the City Branch to fill the gap until the funding is available.

    On the other hand, turning the City Branch into a trolley line would increase the likelihood of us getting low-floor trolleys in the immediate future ( and would, like you said, increase the incentive to bring back trolley service to the southern half of the 23 line…

  6. Worshiping Jane Jacobs is not a good idea by any means, but really, her section on parks in Death and Life really should be the end of this discussion. For heaven’s sake, she uses Philadelphia as her example for what makes certain parks functional or not: visibility, immediate mixed of uses and users, safety. This idea fails at almost every single qualification for a successful park.

    And fake panaceas like adding a “wine bar” in it don’t improve the idea: it just reintroduces the problem of people not wanting to go down there in the first place. A vicious cycle of people not going to the wine bar because people don’t go to the park because people don’t go to the wine bar.

    So on face, this is a terrible idea, even if money was unlimited and there weren’t other needs, already existing resources, and alternate uses. But their claims that there are no parks within a 5 minute walk of Broad & Noble need special condemnation. Matthis Baldwin Park is 5 blocks away, Logan Square and the entirety of the Parkway six blocks away, and, oh yeah, there’s the plan for the f@%#ing Reading Viaduct Park across the street.

    Money spent on this plan would be better spent on literally everything else, including creating a giant bonfire of dollar bills in front of the Lasher Printing Building to draw attention to the plan for the Spur.

    • How is it you can’t see how special this space is ? They thought it was crazy to put a park on the high line.
      This would be more than a unique park , it would in fact be a trail where you could let your kids room free .
      Where people heading into center city could do so without dealing with lights and traffic and the noise , and because the western half is below grade it has it’s own bit of micro climate . The huge stone walls help
      to maintain a more stable atmosphere ? The tunnels help with this as well , this is really cool , you reallfeel like your in another world . All I’m saying is if you can , take the full tour , just give it a chance . And come
      to the design collaborative’s presentation in January and SEE what’s possible.
      HAVE A HAPPY THANKSGIVING

      • I keep chuckling a bit when I read “let your kids roam free” because we’re talking about Center City. I wouldn’t let my kids roam Rittenhouse Square, let alone a park made out of a trench.

        What do the city and involved neighborhoods truly need more in order to thrive and continually grow in the future?

  7. “Open space is needed in this part of the city, says Roark, in part because the area is developing quickly. “We did an analysis of what open space is available in a five minute walk from Broad and Noble and found there is nothing nearby. Adding a civic amenity like this park is a way to set the stage and raise the bar for future development.””

    I agree the many of the other comments against the underground park; but I always get thrown off by suggestion that this is an issue of “open space” in Callowhill, when a BRT in the city branch would provide fast and reliable service to the rest of the city; including fairmount park, mann center, please touch and the zoo.

  8. Minneapolis created a submerged park/ greenway/ bike trail using an old rail bed that runs through the entire southern half of the city and connects with the chain of lakes and other trails. The project has been incredibly successful, find out more about it here: http://midtowngreenway.org/.

    If projects like this have worked in other cities I don’t see why a below grade trail wouldn’t be successful in Philadelphia.

    • How is the midtown greenway a “submerged park”? We’re comparing apples and oranges now. The greenway is at grade and under highways and roads. The city branch is mainly shaded and tunneled.

      Turning Spring Garden St. into an improved Bike ROW would be MUCH more beneficial and cost effective. Then the major costs go into isolating greened bike lanes on Spring Garden and creating Viaduct ramps to link the two. You essentially have the same functionality as the submerged dangerzone park.

      Regardless of what your stance is, it isn’t feasible to completely separate bike transit and automobiles. The larger issue is changing the culture and infrastructure to intertwine the two and create a safe environment. Pouring millions into a bike greenway is great but not at the expense of quality mass transit, whenever that may come.

      • edit – The midtown greenway is not at grade and has its own right of way like the city branch. It isn’t however a tunneled ROW. It is just a former railroad turned into a trail similar to many suburban trail projects.

  9. Hello again nick,
    A few points ……B.R.T. Like the transmilenium in bogota is like a train line without the train ,
    That means large numbers of people moving USUALLY a good distance where walking wouldn’t be a good option , it would be like a train , NO waiting for the next one because of traffic.
    They usually feed much smaller bus lines which deal with the REGULAR roads.
    You could squeeze a BRT on Roosevelt blvd between Huntington park and the turnpike , you could get one on Delaware ave , but because of all the flows of traffic , the zoo , the high school , the railroad overpass the ramps for 76 , no way you have the space for another ROW. On the other end , the artical said it would come up to broad I think right where the spur goes under the future casino ( maybe ) to hook up with othe BUS. Lines. MORE TRAFFIC PROBLEMS , and NO space for another ROW. Urban planners love to talk shit and than are never around to deal with reality ! ROBERT MOSES in the south Bronx!!
    There’s no reason you can’t have the viaduct Greene with the parkway nearby . A trolly running in FRONT of the museums going slow enoug to take in all the great archetecture
    would make more sense . Traffic there needs to be slowed. The high line and the park along the river are side by side , two different parks happily coexisting . Light wells with fiber optics
    could light up the tunnels , a constant stream of students from CCP would guarantee the park would never be desolate . If having lots of stops doesn’t bother you why have the line at all? Walk or bike the viaduct , isn’t THAT the best option ? If your not moving fast than its not RAPID TRANSIT ! I’m really not trying to piss you off , real transit is about having as many options as possible . You have cars , you can have more bus line in the same space,
    No money for a subway , you have strolling on the parkway and now you can have a bikeway and trail on the viaduct. PLEASE come to the design presentation in January and
    see what’s possible

  10. Allen Dorsey, PA-TEC

    Hello everyone, as a member of the Pennsylvania Transit Expansion Coalition, I believe that the best use for this corridor is its originally intended use: mass transportation. Rail is the most efficient means of moving people or goods, and our downtown area is lucky enough to have a passenger rail system, albeit never built to its fullest potential.

    One of the problems that plagues Philadelphia is its over-reliance on buses. While they have an intended purpose, they often substitute what a good rail line could provide at lower operating cost and move more people. Investing in more buses such as BRT would be a tremendous mistake on this corridor considering the large number of possibilities to re-connect the Reading’s city branch to the subway, regional rail or the trolley system. An undergound park is an even worse idea.

    I’m sure we’ll be adding something to our website in the future regarding this valuable and un-utilized corridor. We’re online at http://www.pa-tec.org.
    Thanks, Fred.

    • Mr. Dorsey, while I agree on the larger scale that our mass transit network is over-reliant on buses, I actually think that bus rapid transit is actually a perfectly reasonable short-to-medium term use of the City Branch corridor for a variety of reasons (brevity of the line does limit rail viability and any rail extension would necessarily explode expense, the Branch alignment helps improve what is currently an unmanageable route-alignment situation in Fairmount, and with a few tweaks the Cultural Corridor proposal can be turned from an expensive trophy to an actual, working bus line). Although I was never able to consolidate my thoughts enough for Hidden City, I do have a writeup here.

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