Saturday’s Party For The Viaduct Underscores Progress, Exposes Challenges

 

Reading Viaduct | Photo: Bradley Maule

Reading Viaduct | Photo: Bradley Maule

You might attend Saturday night’s “block party to end all block parties”–the Rally for the Rail Park–for the pig roast by chef Michael Pasquarello (of Cafe Lift, Prohibition Tap Room, and Bufad), the food trucks, the improv theater (this is a Fringe Arts event), the fire eating, acrobatics, the brass band, the custom t-shirt silk screening, perhaps even for the coffee and cupcakes.

You might attend because you believe wholeheartedly in the vision: a park along the elevated City Branch and Ninth Street Branch of the Reading Railroad that cuts a soaring L through the Eraserhood connected under Broad Street to a submerged park along the City Branch all the way out to Fairmount Park–a three mile long jaunt to awaken the northern edge of Philadelphia’s center. Or possibly, you’re particularly enamored of one or the other of the two parts of the vision.

Either way, your participation in what will be the largest public event to date in support of the Viaduct project, now a decade in process, puts a crown on a year of burgeoning action that began with the plan to transform a small section of the Viaduct into a green civic space, a project that will begin construction as early as next July. Design on this first phase by the landscape architecture firm Studio Bryan Hanes, under the direction of the Center City District, was followed by the unveiling of advanced conceptual designs for the underground section of the City Branch.

Image: Studio Bryan Hanes

Image: Studio Bryan Hanes

But perhaps the most critical development came out of the process of planning the block party itself, says Leah Murphy, an urban planner who helped charter the group Friends of the Rail Park (which continues the work started three years ago by Viaduct Greene). “We are already seeing one of the most valuable benefits that will come of this event–that there has been such a positive response to the collaboration among groups advocating for the Rail Park at different scales and in somewhat different ways,” she says. “Looking beyond the Rally, we’re talking about ways of continuing to coordinate our efforts.”

This should be welcome news for those who believe in the park’s vision. For years, as New York’s High Line got under way, the only people committed to advocating for turning the Viaduct into public space were John Struble and Sarah McEneaney of the Reading Viaduct Project, an organization closely connected to the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. In 2010, the project drew the attention and interest of Paul Levy, president of the Center City District. Levy became a believer, as he wrote in these pages, in the Viaduct’s capacity to serve as “a focal and defining feature for the diverse communities emerging between Vine Street and Fairmount Avenue.” The CCD’s involvement led to funding for the first phase. Around that time, Murphy, Liz Maillie, Aaron Goldblatt, and Paul Van Meter, working together as the advocacy group Viaduct Greene, proffered the idea of connecting the Viaduct and the underground section of the City Branch as a three mile linear park. But the broader vision confused the necessarily more focused effort to jumpstart the elevated Viaduct project and tensions emerged.

Westward view of Park from above at Broad Street | Image: Friends of the Rail Park

Westward view of Park from above at Broad Street | Image: OLIN Studio

Now, all the groups are collaborating. Says Murphy, “It’s been a fantastic experience working together with Callowhill Neighborhood Association, including Reading Viaduct Project cofounders Sarah McEneaney and John Struble, to organize the Rally. But the focus of advocacy efforts need to quickly adapt to include rigorous fundraising and formalizing partnerships along with continued work towards building awareness, garnering support, and visioning.”

Proceeds from Saturday’s block party will help fund the maintenance and upkeep of the first section of park, once it’s complete. While those costs haven’t been determined exactly, the benefits of the first phase are eagerly anticipated. “It’s going to bring people to the neighborhood. That’s a big positive,” says Matthew Pestronk, of Post Brothers, developer of the Goldtex Building directly adjacent to the Viaduct. The adaptive reuse of Goldtex, built in 1912 as a shoe factory for the Smaltz-Goodwin Co. , into apartments has garnered attention for a clash between the developers and various trade unions over wage rates and for the union protest that endured for months and was often violent. But Goldtex marks the beginning of what some hope will be a spate of real estate development driven by the new park.

The Goldtex Building up against the Viaduct | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Goldtex Building up against the Viaduct | Photo: Bradley Maule

Pestronk, who sees a likely bounce in real estate values in the neighborhood as a result of progress on the Viaduct, including for his own building, says it will make him consider looking at other available parcels and buildings nearby. But he cautions against imagining the project will be a “magical catalyst,” inducing a High Line-like building explosion. “We don’t have the income elasticity of Chelsea that would support it, for one,” he says.

And moreover, will the City be able to acquire the bulk of the Viaduct from the Reading Company? As progress builds, that essential question looms ever closer. It’s joined, of course, by the question about the future use of the underground City Branch, which comprises fully 2.2 miles of the envisioned three mile elevated-submerged park. SEPTA, which owns most of the City Branch, is about to commission a study on the future use of the City Branch. Transit advocates say it’s best use is for light rail; the Philadelphia City Planning Commission has endorsed a plan for Bus Rapid Transit there while leaving open the possibility of it becoming part of the Rail Park. “The distinct visions for the site that emerged in the spring brought this issue to the forefront,” says Murphy, “highlighting the need for thoughtful consideration and more immediate decision-making.”

In the meantime, a party is in order, as Murphy says, “to get folks to take an active role in imagining the possibilities.”

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 senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



13 Comments


  1. Having recently made my first visit to NYC\’s High Line, then a week later, to our Viaduct, the thought \’we CAN do this\’ will not leave my head. The enjoyment that I witnessed by everyone at the High Line should be very easily replicated here.
    Everyone loves a \’vista\’, and we\’ve got another great one right in our back yard.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! As far as west of broad st , as I’ve posted before anything other than the park would be a waste of this magnificent space. I hope I can get to the block party!

  3. Nathaniel, With “first phase” “construction slated to begin” as early as July, one easily concludes that substantive funding along with the necessary permissions have been obtained or will be soon forthcoming, though the story reports nothing about that?
    Philadelphia’s singular world-class asset is a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. The 9th Street Branch (aka. Reading Viaduct) + City Branch of the former Philadelphia & Reading Railroad fuse to create a 3-mile long corridor that passes not only through Callowhill, but skirts renown museums, combines with hundreds of miles of established trails, the largest city-owned park system in the world and narrates the place with much of the greatest industrial capacity the world has ever seen. It’s with that 3-mile site in mind that VIADUCTgreene was founded in 2010. Like Friends of the High Line, VIADUCTgreene cultivates a bottom-up interest in the site and all its extraordinary potential. VIADUCTgreene works toward sponsoring a International Ideas Competition that considers the site in its entirety, carefully considered phasing of the project, also in its entirety, and respect for Philadelphia’s extraordinary and virtually unrecognized proud industrial heritage, its stories told by, and sensed so palpably throughout the entire place. http://www.viaductgreene.org

  4. I remain a dissenter on using the City Branch trench and tunnel as a park, as I still think it would be put to better use to fill in one of the gaps in our rapid transit network, but I fully support the efforts of the Friends of the Rail Park to get going on a “proof of concept” project that would demonstrate the viability and usefulness of a High Line-style park in this area. As it looks to me like all the pieces to make it happen are in place but the money, why not get going on it? It might wake up the other recalcitrant players along the Viaduct itself.

  5. I agree with Sandy about a better use for the City Branch trench being a transit corridor, but I also strongly support the efforts to build a park on the viaduct. I’m curious what the situation is with the tracks that split off and run northward. There’s a wonderful station on Spring Garden, pictures of which appeared on this site a while ago. It seems to me that rather than the trench, this section of the tracks would be a better extension of the park and have a better chance of leading to the neighborhood development that many are hoping will accompany the viaduct development.

  6. Yes, the Reading tracks can and hopefully will make a wonderful high line of our own, but the city branch cut should not be a park – that’s a ridiculous use of the space – we need it for transit – the purpose for which it was intended from the canal on to the railroads.

  7. As someone who has been a consultant for organizations, neighborhood groups, etc I usually advocate combining similar groups so a common goal can be achieved. In this instance, I can’t see why the Elevated park group would associate themselves with the City Branch tunnel group. Personally I don’t care either way if the City branch is a park or transit as long as its developed which it will be. But why would the original elevated park group, who has full support in the city and community cloud their mission of the elevated park?? What do they gain? They will lose a lot of volunteers and donations and support as the only argument is the City Branch.

  8. This has left such a sour taste in my mouth. Every time I walk the High Line I just think about the amazing views the Reading Viaduct has, and how progress has stagnated. In hindsight, ViaductGreene sought their piece of the pie and really muddied up the situation.

    I hope this time around, VG allows the first phase finish before confusing the public or siphoning any funds.

  9. Thank you all for your valuable insights–good discussion here! Reading Viaduct Project co-founder Sarah McEneaney and I would like to offer some thoughts and clarification for your consideration. The completion of Phase 1, supported by both Reading Viaduct Project and Friends of the Rail Park, will help to make the case and build support for both the section to the east (the 9th St Branch Reading Viaduct) and west (the City Branch rail cut). Whether a transit use for the City Branch is feasible or desirable as far as the City and SEPTA are concerned is yet to be determined. However, Reading Viaduct Project and Friends of the Rail Park share a common goal of a fabulous 3 mile linear park/trail and believe that the site—in its entirety—presents greater opportunity and a much more valuable asset to the City than any single part on its own. The collaboration of the two groups has only been met with positivity and encouragement so far—we have found it has led to even more support rather than less!

    Leah Murphy, President of Friends of the Rail Park, and Sarah McEneaney, Reading Viaduct Project co-founder and President of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association

    • As always it’s great to listen to you talk about the RAIL PARK. Sorry we couldn’t make the block party but it sounds like there will be many more oportunitys to give our support . I truly look forward to the debate and can’t wait to knock down the idea of transit in the trench after septa finishes their study. Hopefully we’ll see you in October.
      Rich

      • We missed you, Rich! Thanks, as always, for being such a dedicated and vocal Rail Park advocate!

        • This is a microcosm of our political landscape. Take an issue that everyone agrees on, elevated rail park, then try to latch a controversial issue on to it to polarize all involved.

          If you want the elevated portion then you must want the city branch. What a bummer.

          Can’t we make Spring Garden St. into a much more green bike way as a compromise? I remember hearing about that previously. What about Washington Ave? There are so many opportunities that could beautify the city streets.

  10. It seems as though the majority of people I’ve spoken with and the majority of opinions posted online tend to support park use for the viaduct east of Broad and support transit use west of Broad. I agree with the posters above who are frustrated that the elevated park plans have been bogged down by this ridiculous nonsense about putting a park in the City Branch trench. I would have loved to attend the fundraiser and would have loved to donate to the elevated park, but am reluctant to do so out of fear that the money would be wasted on the West of broad portion. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I can only hope that Friends of the Rail park will see the light and focus their efforts on the portion of the viaduct that would actually make a good park.

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