High Line Lessons for Reading Viaduct Park

Be careful with the zoning, and be sure to fund maintenance.

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 routesthen, 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.

Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has become the most-visited public park in the country. It’s also transformed the neighborhood, spurring a multitude of real estate development in West Chelsea, including the multi-billion-dollar Hudson Yards.

There are plans to do something similar in Philly. And with nearly two-thirds of the funding secured for the first phase of the Reading Viaduct, it seems inevitable the project will get off the ground (it’s also elevated, so there’s that for figurative language).

What lessons can the Viaduct learn from the High Line? That was the discussion at the Union League Tuesday, where Adam Ganser, vice president of Friends of the the High Line, spoke to a membership meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

Ganser relayed a few lesser-known moves that were central to the High Line’s success. One was rezoning the surrounding area to ensure that new developments were less than eight stories. This way, higher-density buildings were kept to the outskirts, preserving more light for the indigenous grasses and pedestrians to enjoy.

And as for lessons learned? Half-jokingly, Ganser answered that Friends of the High Line should have bought some neighboring properties in West Chelsea, before the market bump, reaping more of what they sowed. “It sounds tongue in cheek, but I would have invested in properties near the High Line, investing in our own success,” Ganser said. Additionally, he would’ve focused more of the project’s funding efforts on long-term maintenance, rather than upfront capital.

The president of the CPCD, Paul Levy, wants to create a neighborhood improvement district “sooner rather than later” to help create a permanent mechanism for funding the Viaduct and its maintenance. A “NID” could accrue money through real-estate owners — such as the Post Brothers, who are already developing in the vicinity — who benefit from the increasing value in the area, giving back to the public infrastructure that’s anchoring their gains.

But Levy’s bid for a Callowhill-area NID was beaten back two and a half years ago. For now, that option looks to be off the table.

For now, the emphasis is fundraising for the modest first leg of the Viaduct’s master vision — which is twice the length and twice the width of the High Line project.

Source: Friends of the Rail Park

Source: Friends of the Rail Park

If the High Line’s experience is predictive, public and philanthropic investment in the Viaduct project will be well worth it. The High Line has already generated an estimated $900 million in new tax revenue, and it cost less than $200 million to develop. It’s hard to know if the Viaduct will have a comparable stimulating effect on nearby blocks, but Levy argues the park has the potential to fill “a hole in the middle of the donut” — plugging the development gap between Center City, Northern Liberties and the Art Museum.

But the initial $9.6 million (over $6 million of which is secured) first phase of the Viaduct project only covers a fraction of the three-mile-long stretch. In New York, the early stage of the High Line helped shake loose big donations that enabled more construction. The hope is the same thing happens in Philadelphia.