Commissioned by Friends of the Rail Park, formerly ViaductGreene, the renderings are highly conceptual, integrating the School District Administration Building and former Inquirer Building.
At this stage in the process, this gives us a clever idea of what a rail trail park through our historic industrial district might look like. However, park advocates shouldn't get too excited about the potential reuse of property that private developers don't really control.
Friends of the Rail Trail should be commended for their recent strides, and advocates are finally headed in the right direction. In the past, ViaductGreene has been a loosely knit organization comprised of members with AutoCAD skills and a knack for getting people talking. While they managed to get neighbors involved in the discussion, they never really managed to rally any key decision makers.
Obviously, a large chunk of the neighborhood supports the project. So much so, many were willing to approve a tax increase for the Callowhill neighborhood to support park maintenance well before anything would have happened.
At this point, the property's piece meal ownership poses the biggest obstacle, particularly the portion owned by the mysterious Reading Company. The Reading Company owns the elevated portion that snakes its way through the neighborhood east of Broad. While the company largely exists as a portfolio of defunct rail lines, it's unclear whether ownership even knows of the plans for their property.
While the Inquirer Building's owner, Bart Blatstein is open to the idea, he has acknowledged SEPTA's vested interest in the property as well.
The City Planning Commission has expressed some resistance to the concept, citing the potential return of transit to the City Branch portion of the rail. It's a reasonable concern, one Leah Murphy, board member of Friends of the Rail Park acknowledged as well.
Even if it takes fifty years for transit to return to the City Branch line, these lines were established when the surrounding environment was being developed. Subways and dedicated rail lines are hard if not impossible to build in an established city, which is why newer cities opt for surface rails. The City Branch line and even the Reading Viaduct is a unique asset that, despite the fact that we don't use them, would be difficult to reestablish as a rail line after they find alternate use.
The Planning Commission has mentioned using the land as a bus line, which Murphy points out could run in tandem with a City Branch park. Park advocates remain optimistic that the line could be used as a park, at least until the city drafts realistic plans to establish some form of transit in the vicinity.
A City Branch Park and a Reading Viaduct Park remain highly speculative, although City Branch's once experimental proposal for an enclosed, underground park, now open to the elements seems more realistic than plans for the Viaduct. Not necessarily because it's more or less desirable, but because it's clear where advocates stand with the land, and who actually owns it.
Until the Reading Company becomes more than a Wikipedia page, the Reading Viaduct, at least its elevated portions east of 12th Street will remain a place reserved for those with a trespassing sense of adventure.
Leah Murphy and Friends of the Rail Trail are moving in the right direction, even if an uphill battle lies before them. Working with adjacent development, the City Planning Commission, and SEPTA, as well as a willingness to work with other potential ideas is the way to go.
Another subway surface line carrying passengers from Center City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Park, Centennial Park, and the Philadelphia Zoo is a dreamy proposal, but one that simply isn't in the cards at the moment.
Why not open it up as a park for now? Bring more people to this colorful, sometimes bizarrely forgotten pocket of what is practically Center City, entice residents with something more than parking lots and weeds, and put some pedestrians on the ground who might someday look for a train to take them beyond.