Think Neighborhood Park

April 8, 2012 | by Paul Levy


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.

Image: Studio Bryan Hanes

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.

Image: Studio Bryan Hanes

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.

Image: Studio Bryan Hanes

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.

Looking Forward

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.



  1. Michael Penn says:

    I’m very happy this moving forward and hope to be able to walk it legally soon.

  2. Pablo O'Higgins says:

    Yes, indeed, the views from the Viaduct, curving across the grid, of the PECO substation are breathtaking.

  3. Matthew says:

    This is a good start and hopefully it turns into a much larger project that brings new development to the area.

  4. sue smith says:

    “Think” major waste of money! Why keep something that is no longer used and bissects an entire area, when if it were demolished it would allow the area to grow in a cohesive manor.

  5. Dave Mercer says:

    It’s good to finally hear a realistic assessment of the project from one of its advocates. This is a nice thing for people who already live in that neighborhood (assuming that there are people who live in that neighborhood).

    Whether anyone else could be made to care, however, remains to be seen. After it, it certainly is not “breathtaking.”

  6. sue smith says:

    The images shown are only renderings! And bad ones at that!

  7. Paul Levy says:

    Pablo, the comment about views refers to views available along the entire length: the Ukranian Cathedral, the Ben Franklin Bridge, the church spires on Spring Garden Street and the downtown skyline.
    Sue: Demolition would cost $50 million and require disposal of lots of potentially contaminated soil; renovation of the entire viaduct could be done for 75% of that cost.
    Dave: there are currently about 2,000 people who live in the area who could benefit from phase 1. But if the funding could be found for the entire segment from Vine to Fairmount it could be a major attraction for people throughout the city.

    1. sue smith says:

      Mr. Levy,

      This elevated park is an expensive folly for a neighborhood with far more dire needs. The elevated viaduct is an obstacle to cohesive growth. There are plenty of opportunities to create unique green spaces that incorporate elements of the area’s industrial past (i.e. the viaduct piers) and still follow Penn’s original vision for Philadelphia. Instead of being a slave to whatever New York does!

      1. Jeremy Alvarez says:

        Ms. Smith,
        While I share your concerns about other dire needs and cohesive growth, I find both the concept of the elevated park and Mr. Levy’s summary argument for it much more compelling. A review of the referenced reports makes it clear that the demolition of this enormous structure is a daunting and costly proposition. Funding for demolition is not likely to become available for decades, if ever. The park can become a unique identifier, a focal image and amenity, for an area that has been substantially reoccupied by factory and warehouse conversions and by Chinatown oriented residential development. The Chinese community has legitimate concerns about accommodating a growing population that are likely to result in more development, changes along Broad Street may prove dramatic and there are numerous ‘soft’ parcels to the north. This is a neighborhood in the throes of major change. The viaduct park is a cost effective and imaginative approach to creating a public destination and neighborhood identifier. If, ultimately, removing the viaduct becomes possible its site can be reconsidered as part of a future planning effort.

        1. james Hewitt says:

          Jeremy, your comments are thoughtful as always Good to hear from you.

        2. James Hewiit says:

          Jeremy you are as thoughtful and well spoken as in the old days. Jack is looking for you.

  8. Mike says:

    Paul you don’t have to justify anything to anyone here. Some of the negative people here were also opposed to the NID. I know plenty of people that live in the Loft District and in the surrounding areas that are jumping with joy over the idea of the viaduct being turned into a park. Keep up the good fight.

  9. Andrew L says:

    Paul, I think Viaduct project is a great idea and it holds a tremendous amount of potential for the city. My one concern is that we abandon the idea of the ‘connector.’ I completely agree with not wanting to reproduce the $170 million Mercedes Benz that is the High Line and that we should celebrate its historical industrial character, but we need to look at how it operates within the context of the in city. One of the main reasons for the High Line’s success is that it functions as a path and not just a destination. This immediately brings more constant activity and to the site and creates a more dynamic place. If we treat the viaduct as a connector (and as neighbohood park) it can help facilitate growth in an area such as the Loft District, and provide a nice pedestrian (or bike) path for those in Fairmount making the trek into the city everyday.
    Either way, I still like the idea!

  10. Greg H says:

    I have been a fan of The High Line since it opened. Whenever I get to NYC I try to walk the High Line. Each time I go it seems there is new construction going on. It has prompted new residential space, restaurants, shops, hotels, and has given a new energy to that part of the city. I see the same change happening in Philly with the viaduct. Very exciting.

    Many cities look alike when you are street level walking block to block. Being elevated and transversing a city gives you a whole new perspective and appreciation.

  11. Joseph says:

    This is exactly the kind of interesting project that brings people back to cities, and Philadelphia has the right kind of design sense to make this work. I can’t wait for this project to happen.

  12. Ellen B says:

    I think it’s a fantastic idea…I can’t wait for Philly to bring positive green space into a neighborhood that needs it.

  13. sue smith says:

    Mr. Levy,

    Speaking as someone whose family has lived in Philadelphia for two hundred years plus years, you are as the French say nothing but an arriviste from New York.

    1. Dave Mercer says:

      Yeah, and after two hundred plus years, you guys have built up a record that only impresses yourselves. Time to give someone else a chance.

      I would ignore this like everyone else, and just assume that some random wacko wandered in from Philly.com, but this mentality is shockingly pervasive among some circles in this town, and it’s a real problem.

      I’m a bit skeptical of the viability of the viaduct park myself, but I would love to be able to lay that skepticism aside someday. I appreciate the idea because it’s a move away from the status quo. And the status quo ain’t what it was in the 18th century, Madame Smith.

      Puisque vous êtes tellement amoureuse de la langue française, Mme Smith, je peux traduire tout ce que j’ai dit ci-dessus, si vous voulez.

    2. Michael Penn says:

      Well Smith my family history precedes yours and can be followed all the way back to William Penn and I say you’re wrong.

    3. This point of view is simply misinformed. Those who started to imagine the abandoned Reading viaduct as an elevated park (not Paul Levy) did so at about the same time the advocates of the High Line got to work. They’ve shared ideas over the years, as that’s what people do. And both groups were in fact inspired by the Viaduct des Arts–in of all places Paris. The difference is–just as happened in the 19th century with Central Park and Fairmount Park–New Yorkers moved faster.

      Since there are no (or very few!) Lenape left in Philadelphia, the notion of what makes a native is absurd. All American cities are polyglots in all ways–makeup of the people, culture, architecture, planning, industry–that’s what makes them such dynamic places and they would die without immigration and other outside cultural influence. –ed.

      1. Michael Penn says:

        Bingo !

  14. Nuts_n_Bolts says:

    At first blush I found your comments to be sour and miserly. I apologize. I will now accord your opinion its rightful veneration. Your knowledge is bolstered by the experience of your ancestors which, as we all know, does not simply dissipate with death but instead is transmitted from generation to generation. Two hundred years, plus more years..wow, you must be a veritable Pyrite mine.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      It’s absolutely true that Philadelphians were on the potential well before the idea of New York’s High Line as a park was hatched. I was with Sarah McEneaney and John Struble when Josh David came to PHS to talk about the High Line eleven years ago. The problem for so long was the demographics of Callowhill (especially, and the city in general). That’s changing. That, along with the model of New York’s High Line (as HC readers know, Phl has a High Line too) it’s completely appropriate that the city’s, along with Mr Levy’s interest in the 9th Street Branch as a park is peaked.
      It’s important to know there are a number of ways to create public interest toward funding such a park. It’s natural for those who operate successful Business Improvement Districts to suggest a Business Improvement District.
      Perhaps, while less pragmatic, an attractively valid and more instructive exercise would be to examine the site’s full potential and excite the vast considerations with a greatly wider public process. Think of it as an intra-city park!
      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 So far as natives, one important design strategy toward creating a fiscally sustainable place is embracing its diversity. Indeed, VIADUCTgreene looks at its remarkable site as already being a grand and diverse garden, of natives, exotic “aliens” and everything in between!

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