Planning To Begin On “Submerged” Section Of Viaduct

May 25, 2012 | by Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Rob Kopf

The Hidden City Daily has learned that the Community Design Collaborative will award a service grant to the non-profit advocacy group ViaductGreene for a first phase study of transforming a section of the underground City Branch railroad that extends west from the elevated Reading Viaduct into public space.

The design work, which will cover the underground section of the railroad between 13th and 17th Streets, will be done by partners and staff associates from the landscape architecture firm Olin Studio and the architecture firm Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson.

This project will begin as the first design phase of the elevated section of the Reading Viaduct park comes to an end and the project–for an initial neighborhood park on the so-called SEPTA spur–goes out to construction bid.

The planning project, resulting in site analysis, renderings, and biddable documentation with cost estimates, will begin as soon as Viaduct Greene is able to raise the Collaborative’s $1,500 administrative fee and will be completed by November.

Forthcoming PennDot reconstruction of the section of Broad Street that is a bridge connecting the Terminal Commerce and Inquirer buildings has inspired this initial phase of planning. ViaductGreene also hopes to spearhead an international ideas competition for the future of what might be a 3 mile park combining the submerged and elevated sections of the Viaduct.

The planning process necessitates the creation of a community task force of about 20 people, which will include Paul Levy of the Center City District, Mark Focht of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, and Stuart Appel, a Temple University professor of landscape architecture whose spring 2012 studio produced a comprehensive analysis of the site and its prospects. The group will also include a representative of Community College of Philadelphia. CCP’s property connects directly to the site.

Developer Bart Blatstein, whose Tower Investments owns several properties in the area of the submerged rail bed, including the connecting Inquirer building, has indicated his support for the planning process.

The planning area, originally to go west to 16th Street, has been extended one block to allow the design team an opportunity to consider the transition between the covered rail tunnel and the rail bed going west, which is exposed to the open sky.


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. Petro says:

    A tunnel in Center City as a park. A dark, underground tunnel, in an area with plenty of vagrants, with limited visibility from the street. Once completed, I see it making news, but not for the reasons that the developers are anticipating. It should be a light rail system connecting the convention center with the museums.

  2. Steve says:

    Subway spur to serve CCP, museums and the rest of the Parkway. It’s already there. Just jump through a few hoops, clean up the space and throw down some track. I’ve been baffled for years why a rail line that runs through this neighborhood and up to the art museum doesn’t have any trains on it.

    1. Steve Stofka says:

      This is the right idea. As I’ve pointed out before, it would be inexpensive to develop as a “light metro”–nearly all of the needed ROW already exists as either subway (Ridge Spur) or dry cut (City Branch). So does equipment (just use standard BSL cars, already properly gauged, and extend existing Ridge Spur electrification). Primary preliminary expense would be connecting the cut with the tunnel, across approximately three blocks. It can be done for very, very little.

      By contrast, the submerged section is a MINDBOGGLINGLY BAD IDEA. It is pure idiocy, near unto the point of lunacy. Why are we even entertaining it? The cut simultaneously provides the best unused mass-transit corridor in the city and an unmitigatable safety hazard for any other use. Use it for transit!

      1. Penn says:

        You’re still missing the point. No-One-With-Power-The Means-Or The Money-Has-Expressed-Interest-In-Turning-It-Into-Mass-Transportation.

        It’s that simple and the crybabies on here aren’t going to be able to change anything and should return to PhiladelphiaSpeaks.

        1. h says:

          Does that mean it’s not a good idea?

          This type of closed minded thinking isn’t good for anything.

          1. Penn says:

            Really ? What’s closed minded ? There’s a difference besides dreaming and reality. No interest from the transportation authorities, no planning, no funding, no approval from every property owner that flanks it….now that’s reality. I’m all for a park and it’s ridiculous to think that this will ever be used for mass transportation.

        2. Veillantif says:

          I will not sit by and watch a lousy idea get the green light because of perceived resistance to a sensible idea, and I believe there are many Philadelphians who feel the same way.

          If you believe the laziness of a few public officials is an insurmountable obstacle, and that the best we can hope for is settling for crap, let me remind you that that is an old, worn-out way of thinking. It has no place in the city that Philadelphia should become.

    2. Smythie says:

      In part because it dead ends at Vine St.

      1. Petro says:

        Light rail can use 13th, 12th, Race, and Arch streets to complete a surface loop. Nope, no dead end.

  3. Wes says:

    Ditto on both comments.

  4. Rand says:

    I agree with Steve. The city would be better served by extending the subway or patco line here. Stations at the community college, Library, Barnes/ Rodin, Art Museum, and then out into Fairmount Park to the Zoo, Memorial Hall and Mann Center. Septa and Patco need to get on the ball with this!

  5. Jake says:

    Completely agree with the calls to turn it into rail, rather than a park. The development of the Parkway needs a way to get tourists from east of City Hall to the museums. This is a perfect opportunity that should be leveraged, rather than an underground park. The underground park will be a redundant service taking foot traffic away from the BF Parkway, whereas a rail line will complement the BF Parkway.

  6. Wesrand Jake says:

    all the above point to the real need and great practicality to put light rail on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The City Branch Cut is too short and too inaccessible for light rail. Not to mention the cost. As a connector “gardenpark” to the elevated 9th Street Branch- sensational.

    1. Steve Stofka says:

      For a rail project? Pretty darn cheap. If done right, possibly cheaper than an asinine park.

    2. DeltaV says:

      So you think it would be better to put rail in the middle of a congested major artery (stopping and waiting at every traffic light) instead of in a ready-made cut a block or so away (grade separated from traffic and able to easily reach speeds of 30-40 mph)?

      That cut is too inaccessible for transit (when people already walk to transit), but not too inaccessible for a park (when people have other above-ground options)?

  7. Matt Lenfest says:

    That’s all well and good but someone has to want to turn it to a light rail system. But apparently no one does.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      and no one (materially) ever will

      1. Steve Stofka says:

        ViaductGreene is creating its own self-fulfilling prophecy by greening over a perfectly viable ROW.

        In Denver, in Salt Lake, in L.A., in Portland or Seattle–in Dallas, even!–dormant alignments such as this are being reactivated for RAIL. This proposal represents thinking at least a decade out of date.

        1. Paul vanMeter says:

          Perfectly viable for light (or heavy)-rail when you convince CSX to relinquish the Philadelphia Subdivision? You call it “obsolescent,” CSX, who owns it, does not.

          Should this happen before or after the $750M+ Broad Street Subway extension to the Navy Yard is completed?
          And tell us more about the tunnel connecting the Ridge Avenue Spur (or PATCO) to the City Branch Cut and how “very very little” it would cost. Tell us more about “a new Callowhill station between 11th and 12th Sts. and a short stretch of 4% grade.”

          SEPTA and the City’s “52nd Street/Center City (City Branch) Corridor Alternatives Analysis” throughly identified and evaluated alternative modes and alignments to improve transit service and access in this corridor; the analysis resulted in SEPTA’s conclusion that none of the alternatives would be federally competitive for funding due to high costs and low projected ridership. It’s not about SEPTA, it’s wants or desires.
          Tell us about who’s going to pay for your “viable ROW.”

          Denver, Salt Lake, LA, “in Portland or Seattle-in Dallas,even” have all developed pedestrian and bicycle-friendly corridors in addition to reactivating dormant rail rights-of-way.

          From a planning standpoint, VIADUCTgreene’s post-industrial corridor has tremendous potential to become an attraction in and of itself. An attraction that adds layers to Philadelphia’s place in founding the country, to its building of the country.
          Tunnel-vision for sure.

          1. Penn says:

            I think, I know Paul just ended the” this should be transportation” argument. I would rather have a park in 3 to 5 years than it just sit there for another decade or two for the hopes some day it will be a rail system, which it won’t.

          2. Liam says:

            Why would CSX have to relinquish the Philadelphia Subdivision? They’d have to be willing to play ball and agree to a segregate section of LRT tracks, but you wouldn’t have to remove freight service.

            Also, I haven’t found a full copy of the 52nd St/CC Corridor AA, but I have doubts about the results. Being competitive according to the Federal measures isn’t the the only thing that should go into identifying a successful project.

          3. NickFromGermantown says:

            If transportation can’t or won’t be done here, I don’t see what else COULD or better yet SHOULD be done here. A sunken park? This sounds like an alteration of something straight out of an urban plan from the 1960’s. People complain about parks at night all the time. And many people complain about Suburban Station after 7, which isn’t even bad. But let’s not forget the subway concourse under Broad Street. This plan seems to take everything that people don’t like and combines it into one thing. The risk reward profile of this plan just does not seem justified.

            I am more open-minded about ideas than almost anyone I know and even I’m saying this park is a bad idea. That is very telling.

          4. DeltaV says:

            SEPTA is also notorious for trying to shed every non-bus transit that it runs. See: Newtown, Ivy Ridge, West Chester rail lines, the non-subway surface trolley’s (the 15 being an exception, and that runs as a bus more than trolley anyway). When it doesn’t just cut them, it tries to make the options so over-priced that no-one will pay for the (Schuylkill Valley Metro).

            Yes, transit is expensive. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued. Transit is also less expensive when it utilizes existing infrastructure, as opposed to having to produce a right-of-way entirely from scratch.

            And honestly, an underground walk-way as a tourist attraction? What is interesting about it? You walk in a straight line, but can’t see anything (as you are what, 20 feet underground), are still exposed to the elements, but are not exposed to feel like part of the city. When you visit a city, do you walk as far as possible in the subways, or come to the surface as fast as possible to look at the buildings, smell the food carts, and listen to the locals?

    2. Steve Stofka says:

      Every single time the City Branch Cut pops up the consensus rapidly becomes that its optimal use is active transportation, and then the question jumps to light or heavy rail.

      What happened to any will for a rail proposal was the Schuylkill Valley catastrophe. Remember, all of SEPTA’s expansion plans for a decade or more got bundled into that thing. Even City Branch reactivation. When that failed, SEPTA lost the will to expand. And it has only been recently that rail advocates have begun tentative efforts to get their voices heard again. Think PA-TEC. Viaduct Greene has about a year’s head start on any rail advocacy group in getting heard.

      The problem is that it doesn’t take much effort to see that Viaduct Greene’s proposal is fatally flawed. It is (literally) sunken, hidden out of the way in an area that could stand more investment. It offers opportunity to become a crime magnet. And it is an inferior transportation use along what really needs to be an active rail corridor.

  8. pablo o'higgins says:

    Oh great a new homeless shelter!

  9. sue smith says:

    A waste of money and a bad idea!

  10. Paul vanMeter says:

    Jake, you seem to indicate “tourists” don’t know how to find their way “from east of City Hall to the museums.” The Phlash Downtown Loop works very well doing just that.
    VIADUCTgreene’s above surface and sub-surface (Soaring and Submersive) right-of-way means 3-miles, some 55 blocks, without crossing a street- an unprecedented opportunity.

  11. NickFromGermantown says:

    This park idea is horrific. The opposing comments here say all you need to know.

  12. Chris says:

    The best use for this space is what it was intended to be…a railway right of way. This space should be a rail line that serves the parkway and connects to Girard Ave. If anything is built here, it must preserve enough ROW for rail for whenever SEPTA has the money.

  13. MP says:

    I want to walk from Broad Street to the Art Museum. Do I take the long, underground tunnel, or do I stay on the street level? Seriously people, think for a minute. You’re reproducing something that is already better accomplished by the existing streets, and that is facilitating walking between locations through the city. The streets already do this very well, and nobody will abandon them, especially nobody out of town, to go down some dank underground tunnel that will invariably fill up with vagrants, trash, and all sorts of interesting smells.

    Now think of it this way: I want to get from Broad Street to the Art Museum. I cant take a light rail vehicle which gets me there in a few minutes, or I can walk on the street. Those are the kinds of options we want.

  14. Veillantif says:

    It’s at best a solution to a non-problem. Rail in a rail ROW not only makes sense, it’s a solution to an ENORMOUS problem.

  15. MP says:

    Here are some of my major concerns with the park. Besides it being a poor use of a key piece of infrastructure in the city, I have some problems with the usage as a park in particular.

    1. Why will people use this rather than walk on the streets or on the Parkway? It may be “quiet” but so are the pedestrian tunnels under Broad Street, and barely anybody uses those, except sometimes in the rain. People largely prefer to walk on Broad Street. What will make this instance any different?

    2. How will you secure the tunnel. Numerous violent and criminal incidents have occurred in underground pedestrian tunnels in Philadelphia. So much so that some have even been closed entirely (think the pedestrian tunnel between City Hall and Vine Street). Will pedestrian traffic even be high enough to ensure safety, will additional security be needed, and will the park be closed at night?

    3. How will you provide egress from the park in case of an emergency. The uncovered portion may allow stairs to the surface but for a long stretch in the tunnel there is no means of exiting short of going back to an entrance. Is it safe to have that large a space, totally cut off from the rest of the city? How do you ensure people could get out if they’re hurt or, in the case of #2, if they are the victim of crime.

    Essentially, how will this be any different from one of the commuter tunnels under Center City? Those are largely unused in favor of the streets, and this plan doesn’t even have a connection to transit which is basically the only reason anybody uses the current set of pedestrian tunnels. It may be “green” but so is the Parkway. People are not going to eschew walking on the surface because you tell them this is better. If they aren’t comfortable they will not use it, and an isolated underground tunnel cannot be as comfortable as the street. I’ve provided instances of where this is the case already. So how can you justify this project?

  16. MP says:

    I also want to address the project as an addition to greenspace in that part of the city. Just as this is a duplication of a pedestrian corridor, it also brings greenspace to a corridor that already has the Parkway and Fairmount Park. The tunnel itself is not greenspace, but an underground pedestrian walkway a la the tunnels under Center City. Howevever, even given the park-like aspect of the open cut portions, we again have to ask whether or not anyone will prefer this to the existing greenspace of the Parkway. Coupled with the fact that in order to move between one end of the park and the other, to actually connect to anything, you have to use the tunnel, again I must point out the fact that you have to provide an environment as comfortable and conducive to walking as is already produced quite well with the existing streets. Given these factors, duplicating existing infrastructure with this project provides no improvement to services and infrastructure that already exists.

  17. NickFromGermantown says:

    Can one of the proponents on this awful plan please respond to at least one – if not all – of MP’s legitimate concerns?

    If we can’t even turn the Reading Viaduct into a park (which, due to the High Line, we know is a venture with a high probability of success) within a reasonable timeframe, why do we take a risk on this “Low Line” project, which has too many obvious drawbacks and hurdles?

    1. We have asked one of the proponents to do just that–it will appear as a separate piece. We have also asked someone with another vision to make that case too. –ed.

  18. IBL says:

    Without reading every single comment to see if this has been mentioned, the largest problem I can see with a mass transit line is that the stretch in question begins in the Wholefoods/PD parking lot and ends in the Inquirer parking lot. Making a rail line work without claiming eminent domain on the center-city properties of Philly’s largest newspaper and the police department would be super costly and would only travel like 5 blocks. Which is unfortunate, because there is nothing I would love to see more than a rail system connecting the Art Museum all the way to China town on the entire ALL-READY-EXISTING Reading Viaduct! This existing rail line would cost billions and billions to build new, but only a fraction of that cost to refurb! Too much politics, big names involved, I cant see this happening even though it makes so much sense.

    That being said, I am all for this park. Why not have an arterial bike/foot trail between 13th and 17th st? I’ve walked the viaduct several times, and both the elevated and submerged sections have the feeling of being in an oasis. I would bike this all the time when moving east or west. As far as crime is concerned, install extensive CCTV cameras and actually investigate and prosecute! Get a good high-res system with audio and the police can actually figure out who these people are. This park is feasible, and better than leaving the viaduct (which I personally find to be beautiful) to sit and rot

    1. MP says:

      The west end of the tunnel connects the ROW to the old B&O cut which eventually comes up to grade around Girard Ave. CSX runs one and two tracks along one side of the ROW. The other side is owned by SEPTA. The ROW has room for four more tracks in the tunnel, and at least two, if not more, outside the tunnel. Once you leave the tunnel you can find ample space for a terminus. The other end of the cut eventually comes back to grade at 13th Street. I understand you’d have to work with Center City businesses on this but, honestly, ask yourself this: would a business rather have a transit connection, or a connection to an underground pedestrian walkway that essentially goes nowhere? (it goes to Fairmount Park, but if you’re a business do you really care about that?)

      CCTV cameras? Really? Great so after somebody’s been mugged or raped we’ll have a grainy photo of the suspect. That makes me feel safer. The presence of cameras hasn’t even produced a clear reduction in crime. It’s been debated whether they help as a deterrent at all. We’re not concerned with prosecuting criminals here, we should be concerned with preventing it entirely. You try and tell people “well we couldn’t think of anyway to stop you from being mugged down there… but we did put up cameras so at least we’ll have a picture of the guy that did it!” I don’t think that will put anyone at ease here. Like I’ve said before, you are entirely duplicating something that is already available on the street. People have to prefer this to walking on the street and the Parkway. Not just once out of curiosity, but regularly.

  19. jk says:

    this is a fantastic idea. More green space. a unique network to have people off of side walks and interacting with the cities unique industrial past. no one has seen a design yet and there is already criticism. this is the future!

    1. Veillantif says:

      Yes: people walking on sidewalks has become such a horrific problem for the city. What on earth do those nutcases think they’re doing, walking on sidewalks? What are they looking for, sunshine? Architecture? How irresponsible could they be to clog up the street just for that?

      We should chase them into a darkened, secluded tunnel, which will be “green space”! (As soon as we figure out a work-around to the whole photosynthesis thing.)

    2. DeltaV says:

      Worried about green? How about getting some diesel buses out of fairmount and the museum district and instead run them as cleaner electric rail away from pedestrians and drivers?

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