The 30th Street District Plan Is Attractive, Ambitious, And Complicated

February 9, 2015 | by Stephen Stofka


Summer 2006 aerial view of the station and yards (and Cira Centre) prior to the demolition of the Drexel Shaft | Photo: Bradley Maule

Summer 2006 aerial view of the station and rail yards (and Cira Centre) prior to the demolition of the Drexel Shaft | Photo: Bradley Maule

Partners of the 30th Street Station District Plan recently held an open house to officiate their ambitious plan to redesign the area surrounding the grand railway landmark. The 30th Street District, a collaboration between Drexel University, SEPTA, Amtrak, and Brandywine Realty Trust aims to develop a lasting vision for the area and to construct a viable plan for long-term infrastructure redevelopment. While the station’s name may have legally changed, as Hidden City Daily co-editor Bradley Maule reported last week, it remains a major gateway linking Center City to West Philadelphia that has been begging for an overhaul for decades.

Development of the Powelton and Penn Coach Yards is the project’s long-term goal–a vision whose most recent incarnation was originally articulated in the Drexel Innovation Neighborhood master plan. The plan will require vigorous planning and considerable public outreach. Amtrak’s Natalie Shieh, project manager over 30th Street District’s wide array of agencies, institutions, and consultants, pointed out at the open house that the ultimate goal of the plan is to serve “everyone’s needs all season long, day and night.” This includes the commuters who use the station every day, bustling to offices and classrooms throughout University City, and the people that live within the station proximity.

30th Street District 1

Capping rail yards and activating dormant space | Rendering: 30th Street Station District

The lead consultant on the project is Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Parsons Brinckerhoff will be doing the engineering work, and OLIN Partners will attend to the landscape design. OLIN’s inclusion points to the importance of landscape architecture in the planning process. “We’re looking to build on the Porch’s success, find out what we need to make the Porch 2.0, 3.0,” noted Amtrak spokeswoman Danelle Hunter at the open house. Much of the Porch’s success stems from it being a programmed, landscaped space that was inexpensive and incremental.

Dream Big, But Start Small

30th Street Station is the hub of University City, the transportation nexus that links the universities, the Science Center, developments along the Schuylkill, and neighborhoods like Powelton Village. Michael Miller of OLIN Partners pointed out at the open house that “the blocks are long and the streets are wide” and that’s the reason why they are “looking for a template for good urbanism.”

Unlocking new land for development will require massive infrastructure investments–the kind that visionaries for a century have dreamed of. Plans for the area date from as far back as the Ben Franklin Parkway’s development when Edmund Bacon was planning commissioner. Interest in redeveloping the area has only gained momentum since the 1980s. Interest in redeveloping the area has only gained momentum since the 1980s. None of these visions, however, have ever come to fruition because the expense is just too great. (It took Manhattan’s most costly apartment buildings to cap Grand Central’s station tracks and it is taking a similar, cost-intensive effort to cap the Hudson Yards today.) To make things more complicated, the area with the highest residential value–the riverfront–would need its own cap over the Schuylkill Expressway, as well as a creative reimagining of its interchange with the Vine Street Expressway.

30th Street District 2

The geography of the District’s ambitious plan | Map: 30th Street Station District

The District’s greatest underlying challenge is the need to put a whole new layer of framework over active transportation infrastructure that is owned and maintained by a host of corporations and agencies, namely SEPTA, Amtrak, CSX and PennDOT. The CSX trestle would be a perfect place for Drexel to put a park, but the cost of diverting freight operations would be a significant bypass with a stupendous price tag. SEPTA breaks connectivity in the District’s plan and the only way to deal with it would be another underground station that would require a new tunnel beneath the Schuylkill River. It appears that the only viable solution to overcoming these limitations is a redesign of the Schuylkill-Vine interchange, a project that could take decades to complete with an enormous price tag on par with decking the rail yards.

It is this messy reality that the design team faces. It is not insurmountable, but the resources necessary to realize the plan are going to be deep and this will limit how much time and resources the partners of the 30th Street Station District will want to spend altering starting conditions. It’s very likely that cost and excessive design tinkering will take decking the railyards–the District’s whole raison d’être–out of the realm of viability and this will make the planners’ jobs that much tougher.


About the Author

Stephen Stofka Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.


  1. Vin says:

    While capping the rail yards would be very transformative for the area, I’m not sure why so much emphasis is being placed on this very expensive endeavor. It seems to me like there are plenty of undeveloped and under-developed plots surrounding 30th Street Station. It’s curious that these developers are not focusing on the 5+ large empty lots in the area. Wouldn’t it be best to create a dense, walkable district within the existing built environment rather than planning to add acres of development to the north?

    1. Stephen Stofka says:

      They are–Drexel’s Innovation Neighborhood should hoover up at least half the vacant lots in the area. However, that isn’t under the 30th Street District’s immediate planning purview.

  2. Roman says:

    It seems ridiculous that this is even on the table in Philadelphia. Philly has so much vacant land that is crying out to be redeveloped. In New York, two rail yards are being capped because there is a dearth of buildable space. In Philadelphia, there is not sufficient demand to warrant the extremely expensive endeavor.

    1. bryant m. says:

      Huh? Am I missing something? Cap cap cap….No! Penn has quietly push their boundary from the top of west Philly by the river 30th street all they two 48th street at one end and pressing against southwest Philadelphia. If you are really trying to reimagine the footprint for the 21st century peen and dDrexel as well as pharmacy college of Philadelphia(which has slowly widened its footprint too) all should come together and make a beautiful mixed development footprint further west and southwest. Not only is it cost effective but it will fully utilize and unify the area from the airport radius to the fFairmont park centennial area radius. Values for homes will skyrocket encouraging growth eventually growing a tax base that has been fleeing the city. Take advantage of the tree lined areas in most of southwestern Philadelphia and well connected transit lines to cenert city and the airport and dDelaware and montgomery county. Turn the 30th street area green. Make it a place Penn did by franklin field. Think outside the box.

    2. Ajs1512 says:

      The vacant land you’re referring to is largely located in very undesirable neighborhoods, which is why they remain undeveloped. Center City and its immediate environs have seen tremendous growth and development over the last decade. In this case, being that the area in question is adjacent to 30th St Station and two major universities, it is considered to be extremely accessible and desirable.

      It’s impractical to compare NYC with Philly with respect to land value and demand.

  3. trakwelder says:

    this seams like it would make boston’s big dig look like pocket change as far a cost goes. if they want to cover over an eyesore why don’t they cap the vine street expressway?

    1. Stephen Stofka says:

      Capping the Vine Street Expressway would be a net plus but it would ultimately all be open space. Capping the railyards (which is going to take a long time to happen in any event) would have economically-intensive uses and thus can ultimately be directly financially justified.

  4. Astralmilkman says:

    With the developement of the High line and Lowline in NYC , and future Rail Park with its submerged sections and tunnel in Philadelphia, Why are we so quick to cap the yards ? With these projects we see how fantastic it is to reimagine post industrial structures into great spaces that capture our hearts while also serving the public as transit and green space. It would be a missed opportunity if teams competing for the design of this space weren’t allowed to play with the idea of keeping parts of the yards in view ( just as the highline has used the street view ).
    This would really push teams to think outside the box instead of giving us another boring suburban glass box.
    Parts of the plan could be like islands connected by walkways , like some sci fi movie. I love seeing the guts of a city. I’ve often thought of how cool it would be to put little solar lights on the rail road ties that would light up at night like tiny little stars. That would be a cool place to hang out at night . Imagine each line having a different hue or color. The idea deserves a chance.

  5. Astralmilkman says:

    With projects like the Highline and low line in NYC and the future Rail park in Philadelphia with its elevated as well as submerged sections and also the glorious tunnel section…………… Why are they so set on covering over the rail yards ? What these places have shown is that the public loves mixing post industrial infrastructure with green space and alternate transit options. And opportunity will surely be missed if the teams given the chance to develope this site aren’t also given the chance to draw up plans that don’t completely cover the yards. Why not put the yards on display just as the highline has put the street view also on display ? Do we really want to cover up this fascinating reveal of the bones of this great city ? Imagine towers that float above the tracks connected by linear parks like tree houses . Let’s think outside the box.imagine tiny solar lights on the rail ties that only light up at night , different lines with different loos or hues. It might look like something like a sci fi movie ( fifth element may be ) .lets keep what makes this space special in the plans so it stands out from the competition.
    We don’t need another generic tower that looks like it was transplanted from the burbs.

    1. Stephen Stofka says:

      There’s one slight problem with that.

      Le Corbusier’s urban theories don’t work.

    2. Mayfair says:

      What an intriguing idea. Partial exposure done right could become an exceptional landmark complimenting the existing landmark that is the station. Lights on the tracks at night is great idea. Just need the right mix of development to get people there at night after work and class hours.

    3. trakwelder says:

      also, the high line near 30th st. is still a very active rail line, seeing anywhere from 5 to 20 trains a day

  6. JohnIII says:

    There were many plans to build west of the river; the first I’ve seen was early ideas dating back to 1929; then the concepts of the 1980’s and 1990’s. How detailed were these plans and will the plans be enhanced if they are detailed or are we starting fresh with a completely new concept?
    Also, I’m wondering if the projects will be done in phases

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