The Reading Viaduct, a grass and tree-covered stretch of historically rich yet defunct industrial rail line in Philadelphia, has opened up a lively dialogue about its potential as an urban connector. With a location ripe for redevelopment, the mile-long viaduct runs north from the edge of Center City to Callowhill, a former manufacturing neighborhood. However, as in most public projects where budgets are tight, the realization of an elevated park has a long way to go.
Paul Levy, president of Center City District (CCD), believes in the developmental potentials of an elevated park and the importance of the park as an impetus for growth in an area that is otherwise beleaguered by desolation. “Growth is stunted by the blighted and terrible conditions of the viaduct,” he said. Levy mentioned the High Line and the Promenade Plantée in Paris as successful iterations of a similar condition, but he was quick to add, “Philadelphia is not New York.” Noting that Philadelphia could not possibly raise the amount of private financial and celebrity backing that buoyed the High Line, he said, “Philadelphia’s conditions for design are more geared towards an industrial feel.”
Two primary obstacles stand in the way of the park’s realization. CCD’s creation of a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) with a 7 percent tax surcharge on residents has caused pushback from Callowhill and stirred much public debate, while in 2004, the Chinatown Plan called for the removal of portions of the viaduct for affordable housing. Budget constraints have prevented the demolition from occurring, and removal of the viaduct would cost nearly $50 million including $25 million for soil remediation. Residents have until January 1 to submit letters of opposition, which would further stall the project.
The other roadblock is in the structure’s ownership. The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of America’s earliest constructed railroads (and a Monopoly game icon), has morphed into Reading International (RDI), owner of cinema houses and real estate in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, including the legacy land on which the viaduct sits. Levy and Alan Greenberger, chairman of the City Planning Commission, have been in discussions with the former rail titan in their Los Angeles headquarters. Greenberger is optimistic that Philadelphia will eventually strike a deal to either involve RDI or obtain the necessary permission to build, but he believes it will be “a protracted process.”
However, grass roots have sprouted in Philadelphia and the vision of a park on the Reading Viaduct has significant popular support. With permission from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), property owner of the viaduct “spur,” and a grant from the William Penn Foundation and The Poor Richards Charitable Trust, CCD has hired landscape architect Bryan Hanes Associates to conduct feasibility studies and design schematics for the viaduct. Hanes told AN that he is looking at this project not as “phase one” but as a “catalyst for enthusiasm.” John Struble, co-founder of the Reading Viaduct Project, notes that, “Mother Nature has been remediating the viaduct for years, we hope that Philadelphia can do the same.”