Last September, after visiting the new Whitney Museum in New York, I climbed up to the High Line for what I thought would be a breezy stroll with gorgeous views of the Meatpacking District. How wrong I was. Between the people jockeying for avant-garde lawn chairs and the gaggles of camera-toting tourists, the foot traffic crawled along at an infuriating pace.
The park was designed for 600,000 visitors per year; last year, there were 6 million. Though the High Line remains an international beacon of innovative green space (it has also invited lots of deep-pocketed developers into the once-sleepy Chelsea neighborhood), it’s not a functional piece of the urban grid. You can lick all the $8 popsicles you want there, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a good way of getting around the Lower West Side.
All of which made me believe that the rallying cry in Philly to create a High Line-esque park out of the rusting Reading Viaduct and adjacent railroad tunnels — together, they form a continuous stretch of land going from Chinatown to Fairmount Park — was mostly about beautification, and not at all about improving mobility. That’s why I left it off Philly Mag’s recent list of “20 Smart Transportation Ideas Reshaping Philadelphia (and Your Life).” Was it one of the 20 coolest urbanism projects around? Surely. But was it going to change the way we moved around the city? Meh.
Someone begged to differ. “Think about being in West Poplar or NoLibs, riding a few blocks to Fairmount and 9th, taking an elevator up onto the Viaduct and then riding all the way to PMA or Boathouse Row, and [you] only have to stop for cars when crossing Kelly Drive,” Michael Garden wrote to me on Facebook. Alright, that got my attention. Read more »
For anyone living under a rock for the past six or seven years, there’s something called the High Line in New York City. It’s “among the most influential public works projects of the past half-century, altering our thinking about public space and urban revival,” as one outlet calmly put it. Originally a 1930s elevated railway line for industrial supply routes, then, once defunct, an enormous source of blight on the neighborhood of West Chelsea in Manhattan, it’s now an international marvel of urban green space. Read more »
Conceptual design for the Rail Park | Image courtesy of Bryan Hanes/Studio Bryan Hanes
Can you believe this is really happening? Unlike other potentially transformative neighborhood projects that either get stuck in some funding lurch, bureaucratic nonsense hole, or never even make it past the just-a-dream stage, the Friends of the Rail Park seem to have really pulled it off.
At least, all signs are pointing to the anticipated realization of the Reading Viaduct Rail Park project. For one thing, Bryan Hanes tells us the city’s Art Commission approved the project conceptual designs earlier today.
Meanwhile, Jared Brey over at PlanPhilly reports Councilman Mark Squilla has “introduced a bill that would authorize the purchase of the portion of the viaduct curving from 13th Street southeast to Callowhill between 11th and 12th.” To be sure, the city’s interest in acquiring the upcoming Rail Park–a project born out of sheer grassroots neighborhood initiatives–isn’t random. Early last year, for example, the city pledged sizable amounts from its budget to the project.
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Screenshot of Uncover Philly, episode one.
At this point, most of us are aware–and of course totally jazzed about–the planned Rail Park on the elevated section of the long-disused Reading Viaduct. What some may not be aware of is that the underground portion of the Viaduct, formerly used to transfer freight out of the city, is still there, silently waiting for its next functional chapter in Philadelphia.
What its next purpose might be is a question that hovers in the back of our minds as we watch Cory J. Popp’s latest video: “The Abandoned Tunnel Under Philadelphia,” the first episode in his Uncover Philly series. Here’s how Popp describes it:
The Reading Viaduct Tunnel is one of those places that most Philadelphian’s know exist, but few have actually seen it themselves. My hope is that this story will reignite interest in seeing this space repurposed and encourage more people to discover parts of the city they don’t often see.
Check out the episode here.
The William Penn Foundation will partner with The Knight Foundation to donate $11 million to five city parks, according to a report from Inga Saffron in The Inquirer. The announcement will be made formal today and give a shot in the arm to some special projects, including the funding of the landscaping at The Rail Park at North Broad at Noble Streets. According to Saffron:
All five projects are shovel-ready, have raised most of the necessary construction funds, and can be completed relatively quickly, in less than two years.
The money will go to the Fairmount Park Conservancy as part of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative in an effort to realize five projects:
- $1 million for landscaping at The Rail Park
- $6 million towards the creation of creative playground called Centennial Commons in Parkside near the Please Touch Museum. According to Saffron, the “development includes a climbing wall, a mini-mountain range, and a spray park that turns into a winding ice-skating track in winter.”
- $250,000 to help kickstart Bartram’s Mile along the Schuylkill in Kingsessing
- $1.75 million towards the Lovett Memorial Library project in Mount Airy
- $1 million for an Audubon/Outward Bound program in the Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park
Foundations partnering to enable railroad viaduct park [The Inquirer]
Other can’t-miss news stories…
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As one reader reminded us on our roundup of developments we’ll be tracking in 2015, the proposed Rail Park is one of the city’s most anticipated projects of the new year. Well, guess what? Friends of the Rail Park sent out a status update on the project’s first phase a few days ago! Here’s what it said:
BREAKING GROUND ON PHASE 1 Designs for the first phase of the Rail Park are complete. Construction documents are ready to bid out. A lease for Phase 1 between the Center City District (CCD) and SEPTA is being finalized. The CCD has grant commitments in hand for nearly 50% of the expected $8.5 million in construction costs and is awaiting word on one additional grant. In concert with CCD’s efforts, FRP continues to build support and develop resources to steward Phase 1 while bringing attention to the entire 3-mile site.
A screen shot from PBS Digital Studios’ “Unusual Spaces No. 2”
Even those who oppose the idea of turning the abandoned Philadelphia Reading Railroad tracks into public space will have a hard time feeling cynical about this short film from PBS Digital, a series by Raymond A. Schillinger. Featured on Gizmodo yesterday, among other places, the four-minute documentary is told through the eyes of Paul vanMeter, the project’s most tenacious advocate, and the founder of ViaductGreene, who died shortly after this film was made. It’s safe to say that without vanMeter’s passion for the project, we would not be where we are today.
The film is probably the best primer for people looking to understand what and where the project is, both underground and aboveground, and what it looks like now. Even I, as someone steeped in this subject matter, feel like I have a better sense of what’s being proposed now that I’ve seen it. Certainly, the scenes shot underground are immensely helpful.
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Long-time supporters of the Reading Viaduct and Rail Park project must be reeling at the latest backing the plan has received. From Philly.com:
Without fanfare, the city and the state have included millions of dollars in their latest budgets toward the first phase of the project: transforming the quarter-mile railroad “spur” that curves through the city’s burgeoning Loft District and dead-ends onto North Broad Street.
The news comes months after the Reading Viaduct Project and Friends of the Rail Park, two local organizations who’ve been pushing for development of the abandoned rail line, joined forces last October.
• Elevated park on rail viaduct finally firming up [Philly.com]
Meanwhile, in other news…
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An image of the Reading Viaduct from the VIADUCTgreene website.
Natural causes can be cruel. Paul VanMeter, who co-founded VIADUCTgreene, died on Thursday at a too-young 54. Paul was one of those advocates for the city who get down into the nitty-gritty of one very specific goal — in his case, the rehabilitation of the defunct span of railroad tracks known as the Reading Viaduct. His obituary in the Reading Eagle said, “Paul had a life-long love and near-encyclopedic knowledge of trains, railroads, and their influence in shaping landscapes and communities” — knowledge he brought to his work with the non-profit.
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If you haven’t already seen it, Philly mag’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood posted a promo video for the Reading Viaduct Park project and we highly recommend it. Good job Friends of the Rail Park!