Plan For City Branch Rail Park Emerges

April 15, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin


Below Broad Street looking west | Friends of the Rail Park

Below Broad Street looking west | Friends of the Rail Park

After changing its name to Friends of the Rail Park, the non-profit advocacy and planning group previously known as ViaductGreene has completed an ambitious plan to transform the underground section of City Branch railroad west of the Reading Viaduct into a submerged park. The new plan, commissioned by Friends of the Rail Park through a Community Design Collaborative service grant, calls for a grand civic entrance to the below-grade park on North Broad Street, in front of the School District Administration building, and active connections–above and below–to the campus of Community College of Philadelphia.

“We asked for a very strong civic connection at Broad Street to the park below,” said Leah Murphy, a Friends of the Rail Park board member (and senior associate at the planning and urban design firm Interface Studio) who oversaw the planning process. “That was the primary question we asked of the planning team. And that’s what the plan does really well.”

The new plan, which was formulated by Richard Roark of the landscape architecture firm OLIN, architect Frank Grauman of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Rob Schaeffer and Julie Wiley of the engineering firm CVM, and Chongba Sherpa of the cost estimating firm VJ Associates, with input from a 40-person community task force, is a thoroughly detailed, extensive, and carefully constructed vision for the rails-to-trails conversion, which would cost about $29 million. At Broad Street particularly, the design presented is substantial.

The proposed park meets the elevated Reading Viaduct just east of and directly below Broad Street at the section of the railway known as the SEPTA Spur. The 1/5 mile long, elevated Spur–which will undergo an $8 million transformation into a park beginning in 2014–together with the City Branch, which is also owned predominantly by SEPTA, would constitute a two mile long linear rails-to-trails park, connecting the Callowhill neighborhood to Fairmount Park. The rest of the railroad viaduct heading north from the SEPTA Spur is owned by the Reading Corporation. The firm, based in California, has demonstrated little interest in selling the Viaduct to the City of Philadelphia.

The Broad Street Bridge, 1891 | Drawing: Frank Cresson Schell, Harper’s Weekly, January 1891

The Broad Street Bridge, 1891 | Drawing: Frank Cresson Schell, Harper’s Weekly, January 1891

The new below-grade park would extend from two points at the east end: the connection to the SEPTA Spur, where the rail viaduct dips under Broad Street (which is a bridge over the railway) and at Broad and Buttonwood in front of the School District Administration building. A key to the plan is the planned reconstruction of the Broad Street bridge, owned by PennDOT. Planners hope to convince the agency to install see-through railings and to puncture the bridge with light towers that are to be installed in the center of North Broad (lighting the space above and below). The parking lot now in front of the School District building would be replaced with a multi-level public space leading to the park.

One obstacle to this design is an annex to the School District building–formerly the Inquirer’s Rotogravure plant–that blocks the railway just west of Broad. The striking Rotogravure building was designed by Albert Kahn in 1948, but Rail Park advocates say the annex, used for predominantly for storage, was not part of the original design. Removing it is key to the rail park, creating an accessible public space immediately adjacent to the Inquirer building, which real estate developer Bart Blatstein hopes to turn into the Provence casino.

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 Blatstein’s Tower Investments, is just beyond the low concrete wall at the sidewalk. | Photo: Leah Murphy

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: Friends of the Rail Park

Blatstein, who is listed as a member of the plan’s task force, is supportive of the idea of developing of the City Branch. His firm, Tower Investments, owns a section of it in this area. “I’m on the sidelines,” Blatstein said of the process thus far. “I’m open to discussion for the below-grade portion; there have been some great ideas, but there needs to be a consensus,” he said, citing transit proposals as alternatives.

“We have a lot of realities we have to keep in mind,” said Murphy. Indeed, the rail park plan faces a set of interesting challenges, most predominantly calls by the City Planning Commission and transit advocates to return the City Branch to transit. SEPTA, which participated on the plan’s task force, wants to be careful not to preclude the future use of the City Branch for transit.

“When are we going to get another dedicated transit right of way that SEPTA owns in Center City? That’s a huge asset–the kind of asset we could never acquire again,” said Jennifer Barr, a planner at the transit agency. “It’s kind of location, location, location–that’s what makes it a huge asset.”

Barr indicated that other transit expansion projects have a greater priority for the agency. The City Branch will require detailed ridership modeling and figuring out of route points. Bus Rapid Transit, she said, could make sense as an interim use.

The draft of the Planning Commission’s Central District plan makes no mention of establishing a rail park. Instead it supports a Bus Rapid Transit line to take riders west to Fairmount Park and beyond. “Why not seize the opportunity in the meantime,” said Murphy, “and if BRT comes, the two uses could exist side by side. We’re hopeful that the idea of a linear park for the City Branch can be brought into the Central District Plan as an alternative vision or an interim use.”

Aerial view of plan with Broad Street in the left corner foreground | Image: Friends of the Rail Park

Aerial view of plan with Broad Street in the left corner foreground | Image: Friends of the Rail Park

Planners had hoped to have the School District, whose building front would be significantly altered according to the plan, at the table as well, but attempts at outreach failed.

At Community College of Philadelphia, looking east | Image: Friends of the Rail Park

At Community College of Philadelphia, looking east | Image: Friends of the Rail Park

Nevertheless, Murphy said that focusing the plan on this initial section of the City Branch was valuable. Compared to areas further west, there was little historic infrastructure to contend with. “We saw great potential for a total transformation,” said Murphy. West of 15th Street, this has meant engaging with Community College of Philadelphia, integrating the new park within the campus and creating a new access point at 18th Street. In addition a railroad trestle between 16th and 17th Streets will be restored to allow a visual connection to campus. It’s a tremendous opportunity to integrate the park into the campus,” said Murphy.

Bradley Maule contributed reporting to this article.


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. JakeL says:

    When will the plan be available for viewing? I hope the plan tackles the Pennsylvania Ave tunnel, which is going to be the biggest challenge. At approximately 3,200ft, it represents a half mile of a real and serious roadblock for this to actually happen. If someone can point to a half mile tunnel that is successfully a park in any city in the world, I would be glad to see some examples. Until then, the only example in our city I can point to is the Broad St subway concourse, that abandoned, unused underground maze in our Center City corridor.

    1. Devin says:

      Perhaps I am not being ambitious enough, but I cannot imagine how this project could easily utilize the tunnel space. The belief that SEPTA and this park could share the open space before the Pennsylvania Ave tunnel and that SEPTA will be the sole user of the tunnel is probably more logical and practical.

  2. Nic says:

    I’m on the fence with the City Branch. I don’t see how the mile long underground park will be maintained or fully utilized, but I doubt Septa will ever actually create and follow through with transportation plans.

    The elevated Reading Viaduct park seems like the real future.

  3. NickFromGermantown says:

    The Reading Corporation won’t sell? Perhaps they should pay their taxes then.

  4. Mike says:

    These renders really conceal how deep and narrow the trench is. Also, they’re pretty disengenuous in depicting fictional buildings with glass walled basements that apparently removed the massive stone walls of the trench. It also ignores Philly’s poor history with “concealed” parks, such as the now demolished pits of Dilworth Plaza and the wasteland of Penn’s Landing.

    The park project should focus on the raised viaduct portion, where city views and open air make for a much better park. Use the city branch for what it was designed, as a transportation corridor. Convert it for a mix of BRT and LRT, so that initially it can be cheaply operated with buses, but upgraded to LRT when the K-cars are replaced.

    1. locustst says:

      Agree on the perspective front. The area between the Inqy and PSD buildings isn’t nearly that wide, nor is the former pit/current lot in front of PSD nearly that large. In fact, I’d venture that these images essentially double the scale of the possible park space. And of course, that small and narrow space will feel constrained by the depth of the park and the height of the surrounding buildings. Opposite effect from the elevated portion.

      1. In doing the research for this article, I asked about the perspective and actual amount of space. It is in fact accurate–what is shown as fitting into the space is proportional. However, the perspective does amplify they sense of spaciousness. The designers involved in the project are top professionals. –ed.

  5. Bob Ellis says:

    I believe you will have to partner with SEPTA to have enough political clout to keep the bridge at Broad St., which seems to be the key connection point, and to get the School Board to agree to the proposed demolition of the south wing of their building and the modifications to the parking lot.

    1. PennDOT will maintain Broad Street in this section as a bridge in its upcoming reconstruction. –ed.

  6. Laura says:

    Of course, I like how grubby it is now. How about integrating a dog park into this plan? We don’t have one anywhere near. That would ensure use. Just saying.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      The perspectives are truly dead on accurate and the design team top-notch. The view East at the Community College of Phil. (CCP) can appear overly spacious because the North wall is deconstructed to access CCP and encourage the idea of of quadrangle for the campus.
      Could you elaborate on “The 1/5 mile long, elevated Spur…will undergo an $8 million transformation into a park beginning in 2014?”

  7. Brenda Scott says:

    I am reading about it, but no mention if it is handicapped accessible

    1. Brenda Scott says:

      Where do handicapped people enter, no mention of it in the articles I have tesd

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