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 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.
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.”
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.
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.