full read here with a lot of photos:http://www.planphilly.com/node/9734
By Thomas J. Walsh
Lost in all the recent talk about the Reading Viaduct – the elevated, abandoned railroad bed that slices through the city from Vine Street northeast to Fairmount Avenue – is that if things had gone a certain way a decade ago, the City of Philadelphia would already own the property.
What’s more, Reading International Inc., the California-based movie theater and real estate company that is the ancestor of the Reading Railroad, wanted to give the city between $2 million and $3 million to take the property off its hands, say veteran economic development professionals who were with the city's Commerce Department at the time.
“The reason why nothing’s been developed is it is owned by the Reading company still,” said Andy Toy, who was the city’s first brownfields coordinator and worked at Commerce for 15 years, handling real estate transactions, zoning issues and sheriff’s sales. “It’s a liability for them.”
“They did have a deal, though,” Toy said this week, during a conversation about ongoing debates between parties that want to turn the Viaduct into Philadelphia’s version of New York’s successful High Line, and those who would rather tear it down. The period he was referring to was in the second Rendell mayoral administration, and before Toy left Commerce for another job.
“They were going to give us money to take it,” Toy said. “It got stalled because there were concerns about releasing the Reading company from liability, which is ridiculous. If we had done our [environmental] study right, we would’ve realized there would be no big surprises.”
Toy, who believes turning the Viaduct into a park is not a great idea, said that at the time, he wanted to take control of it because the city already had – indeed, still has – partial liability. In a long ago agreement, liability for the railroad’s safety, environmental remediation and demolition was split between Reading, the city and SEPTA. Reading still maintained the majority of the liability – about 60 percent, if Toy’s memory serves.
(The city acquired and demolished part of the Viaduct, from the north side of Vine Street to the converted Reading Terminal Headhouse at 12th and Market streets, when the Convention Center
On Reading’s current position, “the more they think there’s an opportunity and the more they think there’s an interest,” the more they’ll likely charge for it, Toy said.
“The question right now is if there is serious interest on the city’s part,” said Toy. “I would guess the answer is no, because the city has no resources.”
High Line = high bar
Meanwhile, the highly touted, highly publicized High Line in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood has already served two big roles for Philadelphia’s own version of a possible elevated park in the sky.
First, one of its original advocates, Joshua David, co-founder of the nonprofit Friends of the High Line in New York, was invited to Philadelphia in December 2003 by the Pennsylvania
“Nancy O’Donnell at [PHS] was aware of our efforts,” said Sarah McEneaney, co-founder of Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct Project. “Joshua spoke and completely inspired us. We ... invited neighbors and everybody we could think of, and started talking it up. We talked a lot with Joshua in the beginning.”
Second, with the High Line’s completion earlier this year and subsequent chorus of enthusiastic approval, it “has really lit a fire under everyone, and made a lot of people see what our’s could be – when maybe they couldn’t before,” said McEneaney, an artist and founding member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, where she has lived for 30 years.
The Viaduct is about a mile in total length and close to five acres in overall size.
McEneaney and her partners on the Reading Viaduct Project have met with a whole host of city and state officials, along with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a national group. The Philadelphia Water Department has been in recent contact, she said, regarding the possible use of federal stimulus money for “green infrastructure” projects.
“They are interested because it is essentially a giant green roof already,” McEneaney said. “And they are interested in doing a more up-to-date environmental study.”
McEneaney said she’s also given recent tours of the Viaduct to high-level, local economic development executives, including Paul Levy, executive director of the Center
City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corp.
“I think it’s a thing that’s really worth exploring,” said Alan Greenberger, executive director of the City Planning Commission. “Not just because the High Line in New York is cool. I mean, it is cool. But, it’s just one of those things that’s sitting in our midst that we can drive opportunities on.
The Chinatown Viaduct plan(s)
Voices opposing the retention of the Viaduct were raised during the creation of Chinatown Neighborhood Plan, published in December 2004 by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., with help from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the design firm Kise, Straw & Kolodner.
The plan itself acknowledges the rift, but a compromise that includes “selective demolition” could have legs, and it is something that Toy supports (though his personal preference remains complete removal).
Heller explains the compromise well in his posting: “The quarter-mile, masonry-supported spur west to Broad Street would be retained and transformed into a park. The northern spur would be retained for about 0.2 miles, up to Ridge Avenue, where it would ramp down to the surface and connect with a planned new ‘town square’ park, surrounded by mixed-use development. In this compromise solution, the remaining 0.4 miles of the northern spur of the viaduct would be demolished. This compromise would allow Chinatown to develop its own ‘dramatic downtown overlook’ or ‘sky park’ while also clearing some land for redevelopment.”
In this scenario, the remaining part of the Viaduct would form a sort of cursive (and appropriate) “V” shape, with the main line cut off near tiny Noble Street, between 10th and 11th – four blocks south of Spring Garden Street.
But, to some backers of a Pennsylvania
Environmental Council effort to re-make Spring Garden Street into the city’s connector for the ambitious East Coast Greenway, a direct connection to even more bike and walking trails on a redeveloped Viaduct would seem to be a perfect marriage of old and new green infrastructure. It would provide a natural southern route into Center
City for users of the Greenway, which seeks to link future green trails on the Delaware River and the recently completed Schuylkill River Banks.
Terry Gillen, Mayor Michael Nutter’s senior economic development advisor and executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority, said this week that she has not studied the Viaduct, and that no related projects are on the RDA’s radar.
The Viaduct’s future holds nothing but question marks. Currently, though, owing to the success of the High Line on Manhattan’s meatpacking district, there seems to be momentum in favor of saving it.
“It’s very exciting that everyone is coming together on this,” McEneaney said. “Everything is sort of on hold for now, but the recession won’t last forever.”
Aside from the High Line, advocates for a beautified Viaduct point to Paris, where La Promenade Plantée is another high-profile success story of a former rail line that’s been re-used and embedded into the fabric of a vibrant city.
In Chicago, efforts are underway to refurbish the three-mile Bloomingdale line, which is already in use as a bicycle path. Other big cities, such as Atlanta, have similar proposals pending.
Under the National Trails System Act, passed by Congress in 1983, there are other options for the Viaduct, but they would seem to necessitate cooperation with Reading Entertainment. A legal conversion method known as "railbanking" emerged from that law, which has already allowed for the conversion of 4,400 miles of ground-level rail corridors in 33 states, according the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
The act states that railbanking is “a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager without reverting to adjacent landowners.”
But a couple of hours of intense scrutiny of the Viaduct makes it clear that it shares very little in common with the High Line, even if nothing had yet been done to the New York property.
“Maybe the High Line in Chelsea makes sense – it’s a straight line and doesn’t take out development opportunities,” said Toy. “The Reading Viaduct is curvilinear” and runs through several neighborhoods.
The High Line is a truly elevated structure, resting on steel girders that allow the eye to grasp the streetscape beyond and between it. It’s a sort of propped-up throughway in the sky. The Reading Viaduct, on the other hand, is an enormous earthen presence, creating valleys, tunnels and grime-besotted urban caves.
It meanders along two spurs and is much, much larger than the High Line, especially in the amount of infrastructure to negotiate. It is more like a long, low mountain than a traditional urban, elevated train platform.
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ON THE WEB:
Reading Viaduct Project:
Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.:
Reading International: www.readingrdi.com<http://www.readingrdi.com>
The High Line: www.thehighline.org/<http://www.thehighline.org/>
La Promenade Plantée:
New York Times (“For High Line Visitors, Park Is a Railway Out of
Manhattan,” July 21, 2009):
Philadelphia Inquirer (“Parkland in the air,” Aug. 23, 2009):