With construction documents in hand and a financing package in the making for the first phase of the conversion of the Reading Viaduct into a park, the two leading non-profits advocating for the project are merging. Tonight, at the closing party for Design Philadelphia, the Reading Viaduct Project, led by Sarah and McEneaney and John Struble, and Friends of the Rail Park, led by Aaron Goldblatt, Leah Murphy, and Liz Maillie, will officially “marry” and work together going forward under the name Friends of the Rail Park. “We share common goals and have a wealth of energy, skills, knowledge and optimism,” said McEneaney, the highly acclaimed artist, who along with Struble founded the Reading Viaduct Project a decade ago. “We are working with the City of Philadelphia, Center City District, Studio Bryan Hanes, and Urban Engineers to help make phase one a reality.”
Phase one of the project will transform a relatively small section of the Viaduct known as the SEPTA Spur. It’s owned by the transit agency (as is much of the underground City Branch railroad that connects to it going west).
McEneaney and Struble “have done it the old fashioned way, building relationships, organizing community meetings with local businesses and residents, leading scores of tours of the viaduct, taking elected officials, public officials, civic leaders, foundation board and staff, students, journalists–anyone who is interested up there to have the first hand experience of the elevated park,” says Paul Levy, CEO of the Center City District, the agency managing the first phase. “They have been pragmatic and persistent and have consistently reached out to overcome barriers, such as those that had existed with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. This has paid major dividends.”
As Hidden City reported last month, the two organizations began to work closely while planning a block party fundraiser for the management and upkeep of the new park. It was there, Levy says, McEneaney and Struble saw the “great digital communication and potential crowd-funding skills that the Friends of the Rail Park brings to the table. The Friends of the Rail Park have also mobilized a younger demographic that is being draw from throughout the city. So I think this very consistent with John and Sarah’s approach all along, which has been to enlist allies and share the burdens and the credit.”
The block party, which attracted some 600 people, raised more than $24,000 toward the first phase. “The numbers were well beyond our expectations,” says Murphy, a city planner, “but I think the most valuable thing that emerged from that experience–both organizing the Rally for the Rail Park and enjoying it–was the realization that we really are cultivating a community around this project, and making it become a reality is not going to happen without that. Seeing the Viaduct populated and animated with people and music and food made a concrete experience out of what we are working so hard to create–it was a genuinely inspiring moment.”
Friends of the Rail Park began in 2011 as the group Viaduct Greene, dedicated to beginning a conversation about converting the abandoned below-grade City Branch railroad into a linear park that would connect to an elevated Reading Viaduct park. That process got a substantial boost from the completion of a design plan completed earlier this year by members of the firms OLIN Studio and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and sponsored by the Community Design Collaborative. Some planners and transit advocates have argued the City Branch should be used instead for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit.
Together, the three parts would make a three mile linear park connecting Callowhill and Ludlow neighborhoods with the Parkway and Fairmount Park. “We are thrilled that John and Sarah embrace our vision of including the City Branch west of Broad in a continuous three mile Rail Park and that they recognize the great value it brings to their own vision and efforts,” says Murphy.
Levy says that his office is hard into the process of budgeting, fundraising, permitting, and securing necessary agreements and regulatory reviews for the first phase. Construction, which may begin as soon as next summer, says McEneaney, “will help further our goals for both the elevated Reading Viaduct east of Broad and the submersive City Branch west of Broad.”
The advocacy process is necessary even as work on the first phase continues in earnest, says Levy. He looks to the incremental progress on the Delaware waterfront as a model. “The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation focused on the details of successfully building one pier park (Race Street Pier), while they were planning other improvements. So it is clearly possible to advance a large scale project both by focusing on the individual pieces, while not losing sight of the whole.”