Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Viaduct Impossible

After reading about the so called "marriage" of the Friends of the Rail Park and the Reading Viaduct Project I decided to take a look. Like many who live within spitting distance of Callowhill's industrial district, I don't spend a lot of "me time" in the vicinity.

While pricey loft conversions have sprouted up in the neighborhood between 11th and Broad, it's still a very real, working industrial zone. I've been to Prohibition Tap Room, The Trestle Inn, Café Lift, and the wildly pretentious Bufad Pizza boutique, but many in the neighborhood are still struggling to identify with what Callowhill is.

Callowhill is doing what it was designed to do, to work. Currently that's servicing Chinatown's restaurants and grocery stores and harboring outsider artists who like its grit. It's been doing that since the early 1900s.

While some of the louder neighborhood voices are fighting for a Reading Viaduct Park, and now a City Branch Park, they've done little to prove that it would ever be a viable concept.

Part of the problem comes from residents' insular view of their neighborhood. Sure, their lofts are hip and expansive, but they're fortressed behind parking lots and the echo of real estate agents spouting, "you're so close to Center City."

The Reading Viaduct Park is a great vision, but that's what it is, a vision. Aside from the complex ownership of the structure, much of the neighborhood still needs to prove they want to spend their free time there. Right now, its more upscale residents view Callowhill as a gritty Conshohocken. They're detached.

Urban enclaves are more than planned communities surrounded by tax funded freeways and parks. Urban communities, often strapped for cash, are communal.

Locked within a condominium complex in Callowhill, you'll find a lot of like minded people who wonder why the Reading Viaduct hasn't been demolished, turned into a park, or turned back into a transit line. But many of those residents moved to the city with the same resistance to urban realities that maintains a private parking space. In their mind, they're near Center City, not in it.

Callowhill, callously referred to as the Loft District by realtors, isn't that. It's not a dead industrial zone awaiting the salvation of suburban refugees blessing Philadelphia with its next hip neighborhood. Unlike the Northern Liberties' Piazza, Callowhill isn't a blank slate. Its proximity to Center City and industrial infrastructure make it a viable work horse.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Callowhill's upscale voice is its impression that the neighborhood outside their condo is dysfunctional. Whatever they perceive it to be, that won't change because the neighborhood financially succeeds as it is.

Master plans can't be employed in a neighborhood that already works. As working urban enclave Callowhill will never be a planned community, and that means compromise. That's where advocates are lost. The neighborhood can be improved, but it means working inside the neighborhood, not above it.

Some of the more cynical residents might not see the beauty in Callowhill's gritty diversity, and parks are the canned response of shortsighted design. That's not to say Callowhill couldn't benefit from a splash of green, but starting big isn't just risky, it's illogical.

Callowhill is full of small, unused vacant lots, land on solid ground. Where is the community? Instead of transforming these small, potential oases into community gardens and pocket parks, they're illegally parking their unregistered cars on them.

It's hypocritical to defy the PPA with makeshift parking lots and then ask the city to burden itself with a park for neighbors who rarely spend time outside their own private terraces.

If Callowhill's lofty residents want their neighborhood to be lofty, they've got to do some of the legwork themselves.

Instead of proposing extremely expensive, tax funded park space they should be working to redevelop vacant property, wrangling retail and service business, and trying to make their neighborhood feel more like a neighborhood.

The combined advocacy groups operating under the name Friends of the Rail Park plan on converting the SEPTA spur into a park. Friends is certainly capable of raising the funds to transform and maintain this two block stretch of rail.

But the bulk of the viaduct's ownership is complex and uninvolved, and engineering the truly elevated portions of the rail is complicated. With all the talk from Viaduct advocates over the years, no one has formally addressed the real estate nightmare ahead of them.

For now, unless Callowhill's cushy residents are willing to put their foot to the pavement and grab a broom, this industrial neighborhood will remain unchanged.

As long as the industrial relic provides the neighborhood's backdrop one way or another, Callowhill will always feel exciting. Until Friends figures out how to transform and maintain, or more importantly buy the viaduct, they might want to try encouraging its neighbors to enjoy the neighborhood directly outside their doors.


  1. Nice to sit outside the neighborhood and throw stones from your own comfy condo in whatever neighborhood you are in. As a non resident you obviously do not see the transformation that has already happened in just a few short years here in Callowhill. However, further transforming this neighborhood is going to take more than just a broom as you suggest.

    "they should be working to redevelop vacant property, wrangling retail and service business, and trying to make their neighborhood feel more like a neighborhood."

    Again, said someone who doesn't live here. It does feel like a neighborhood to me, and live right in the middle of the neighborhood along 12th street. Try coming to our community meetings, or helping with the spring clean up or one of several other local events that happen in the community.

    Redeveloping vacant property in Calowhill is already happening. Take a look at the number of construction permits that have been filed, come to a community meeting once and while and listen to developers talk about how they are going to rehab this building or that. There are at least 50 new housing units slated to be finished or started within the next year.

    All of those additional residents will bring in the retail and service business which will attract more residential units. And all of that with no green area to speak of and a giant neglected abandoned eye sore that cuts through the middle of the neighborhood.

    Leaving the Viaduct to rot will help no one and still cost tax payers money to maintain in its rotting state. Tearing it down is ridiculously expensive and leaves a gaping hole in the neighborhood. Turning the area into a park is the cheapest and quickest option that further accelerates development in the area. This will further increases the tax base and in the long run will actually make money for tax payers. Money that would be lost if it was left to rot or was torn down.

    The real estate mess will get sorted out one way or the other. Seriously that is like the smallest of all the issues facing the viaduct. No one said the Viaduct projects would be easy or that they would all happen tomorrow. Lets start with a small park along the spur and work from there and see how goes.

    - C. Thomas
    Callowhill Neighborhood Resident

    1. I love that ownership is "the smallest of all the issues facing the viaduct." I want to make the City Hall clock tower my evil lair someday. I have a few renderings. The only thing standing in the way is ownership, but that'll sort itself out.

      For the record, I've lived in a trinity off Vine for five years and have participated in the one-time-a-year Spring Cleanup since it began.

      I would have no problem with the Reading Viaduct being a park. Who would? It's an amazing concept, like flying cars or healthy bacon.

      Maybe you've proven me wrong. If the Callowhill Neighborhood Organization has plans for the dozens of small lots surrounding the viaduct - lots too small to build on, but large enough to park PPA scofflaws - then I humbly stand corrected.

      But I've never seen a proposal or plan to do anything with this type of land. I've never seen the CNA mention the poorly paved sidewalks, or anyone try to address these manageable demons with the same dedication seen on behalf of the viaduct.

      If Callowhill looks that much better from thirty feet above, maybe it doesn't matter.

  2. We Do Not have ,Enough Money For Our Schools"How Will We Deal With This Big
    Project,This So Call Rail Project, This Will
    Cost Us Millions."From Time 12:00PM
    Tuesday Afternoon. 04/22/2014.

    1. I don't think the money is coming from the state's school budget, but I certainly agree the schools should be better funded. However, new parks attract new residents and businesses which generate tax revenue that can go towards schools.