Official “Marriage” Of Reading Viaduct Advocates

October 18, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin


From left Aaron Goldblatt, Sarah McEneaney, Leah Murphy, John Struble, and Liz Maillie of Friends of the Rail Park | Photo: JJ Tizou

From left Aaron Goldblatt, Sarah McEneaney, Leah Murphy, John Struble, and Liz Maillie of Friends of the Rail Park | Photo: JJ Tiziou

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.”

They even threw bouquets | Photo: JJ Tizou

They even threw bouquets | Photo: JJ Tiziou

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.”


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. Left out says:

    Unfortunately, those of us who support the park on the elevated viaduct, but oppose the park in the pit and the anti-transit message they use to argue for it are going to have to fight against this new group.

    1. Michael Penn says:


      Maybe you need to read Septa’s “Doomsday Budget” before you go wasting your time.

      1. rk says:

        you think Corbett and the tea party will still have a vice grip on PA’s budget in 2 years? I certainly don’t. And I look forward to the benefits that should come from having a responsible government that doesn’t hate Philadelphia again–like investment in cost effective, smart transportation plans.

        1. Michael Penn says:

          A huge LOL, Then Philadelphia will change it’s name to Fantasy Land.

      2. David G says:

        Better nothing than wasting money on the underground mugging park.

        1. Michael Penn says:

          Look up New York City Low Line.

          1. Davis says:

            Mr Penn – Assuming that anything that works in New York City will necessarily work in Philadelphia suggests to me the you are living in Fantasy Land.

            To “marry” these two projects is – to my way of thinking – to doom either project, more especially the viaduct.

            But hey, – Bon Chance.

          2. Left ouit says:

            I’m familiar with it, and it’s similarly flawed, but very different concept. There are just as many questions of whether an underground space can work in New York.

            One key difference is that there’s very little transit benefit to be had from the former trolley terminal of the Williamsburg bridge. It became obsolete once the subways connected to Brooklyn and Queens.

            It’s also a smaller space, only about a block and half long by Philly blocks, but also about double the width of the narrow city branch trench (which was exactly wide enough fit 4 freight tracks, about 60 feet). The 2 miles of City Branch trench/tunnel from Broad to Girard would be the length of Houston street, for comparison.

            Even then, the lowline groups are not trying to turn it into a public park, but more of a programmable event space.

  2. Mr. Bob Dobalina says:

    Wow. I didn’t think this park would ever see the light of day when I read about years ago. The Viaduct Park will be an amazing addition to the city.

    The Rape Tunnel Park should be scrapped immediately though, so all efforts can focus on the portion of the project that makes sense.

    Just can’t see how the tunnel wouldn’t be a homeless shelter after a year. Just walk through LOVE park after dark. And that’s right across from city hall.

  3. Michael Penn says:

    There are already homeless living in the tunnel.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      No, there are not homeless people living in the Pennsylvania Avenue Tunnel. In spite of all the frankly bizarre and misinformed commentary and lack of in-depth reporting on Hidden City’s pages regarding the Reading Viaduct and City Branch, vast support for the making of a three-mile GardenPark has been the harvest of a lot of hard work, investment and mostly, walking and talking along the site itself, much of which goes on via VIADUCTgreene’s relationship with sidetour, indicative of VIADUCTgreene’s approach to philanthropy and urban entrepreneurship.

      1. Michael Penn says:

        I’ve been down there 3 times in the last 6 months and witnessed people living down there.

  4. Paul vanMeter says:

    Nathaniel, VIADUCTgreene was invented in 2010 to identify the site in its entirety and make large scale visioning of it as a whole, visioning with far greater consideration and expansiveness in the manner that Mr Levy astutely observes as being “clearly possible” for Delaware River improvements.

    Unlike Delaware River pier projects, building out over individual sections of the continuous and connective whole of the 9th Street+City Branch without that far reaching holistic consideration creates a myriad of problems, kinds that threaten the truly sincere and less politically compromised advocacy VIADUCTgreene continues and supports today.

    Encouraging a full buildout of the so called “SEPTA Spur” portion especially, is indicative of the naivety, ham-handiness and politically compromised positions Center City District and Friends of Rail Park bring to the process. There, any improvements beyond necessary renovation and re-waterproofing of the c.1892 steel bridges dramatically and exponentially increases the costs of making the whole, while frustrating corporate interests so far as property rights and suspension of necessary rights of easement. The same kind of corporate interests whose enthusiasm is necessary in making and programming bold new civic places. The same corporate interests VIADUCTgreene currently works with encouraging holistic visioning including that the greening of Chinatown North and Callowhill begin on street level, where a myriad of opportunity awaits.

    In the meantime, the VIADUCTgreene initiated and completed Community Design Collaborative work as presented by the above mentioned OLIN Studio and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson plans invites great enthusiasm regarding upcoming movements about the “Broad Street Bridge” and Community College of Philadelphia.

    Read more about truly inventive initiatives at

  5. Astralmilkman says:

    Congratulations on the marriage ! With FRIENDS OF THE RAIL PARK now in the drivers seat and momentum building for the park there’s a bright future for those 3 miles. Septa has no money and honestly , putting a tourist shuttle out of sight is just plain stupid ! I understand the concern for safety but this won’t be the first bit of space to be taken back from the underbelly of society. Why is it so hard for some people to invision a beautiful reuse for a dark place that had been forgotten ? But then I remember how some people treat the elderly . Theyre just scared of change , of growing old themselves , of being treated by the young , the way they treat the old. I choose to see a unique space where young and old can enjoy nature , each other and the fantastic reuse of a gorgeous old rail line ( tunnels and all ) not a scary place. With diverse neighborhoods , CCP , a new loft district and ultimately a greener path to get to center city ( across 676 , over a future towers garage , across a greened over convention center and into the reading terminal market……. I hope ! ) How can people think this space won’t be crawling with people , especially CCP’s students. I look forward to someday taking my grand kids on the RAIL PARK and telling them the tale of how it came to be . Teaching them to see beauty where others only see fear.

    1. Left out says:

      “How can people think this space won’t be crawling with people”

      Because we’ve seen what underground concourses look like, just a few blocks away under Dilworth Plaza and the Municipal Services building.

      You say putting a “tourist shuttle” (straw man argument) out of sight is a bad idea, but putting a park underground is a good one? That makes no sense.

  6. Readers, This is just a reminder to keep your comments on the subject at hand–and not on each other. You might be surprised how much you agree with each other most of the time. And moreover, aren’t we all here interested in the future of the city? –ed.

    Here is our comment policy, found at:

    Commenting on Articles

    The editorial staff of the Hidden City Daily reserves the right to review, edit, and respond to comments. Staff reserve the right to decide if a comment should be published. We seek comments on our articles that respond to the ideas and issues presented in the articles and that do not seek to target or vilify other commenters. Comments should be based on fact and not conjecture. Comments should remain free of insult, name-calling, threats, and should never demonstrate personal disrespect for our writers and photographers and other readers and commenters.

  7. Nabil says:

    I think it would be most beneficial for everyone to donate progress the idea of the Viaduct park. The submerged section can be debated when that is on the docket. Congrats to the effort raising the funds and awareness thus far.

    Do we still have to sneak on? I look forward to going on a stroll when I visit.

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