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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.