Thursday, August 7, 2014

Could the Low Line Actually Work?

About six years ago, PRA Development and Management Corporation began construction on The Residences at the Rodin in the pit behind the Rodin Museum. After the economy collapsed, the site was abandoned. Rusted I-beams still rise out of the construction site which now provides parking for the Ninth District Police Department.

But the recent uptick in development that followed the relocation of the Youth Study Center, a juvenile detention center situated oddly on our cultural corridor, has begun transforming the vicinity into something more than "that other neighborhood above the Parkway."

Investment in both the Logan Square neighborhood and nearby Callowhill have also spurred an interest in some of these communities' aging relics, most notably the Reading Viaduct and the City Branch Line. Both unused, the Reading Viaduct is steaming towards redevelopment as an elevated park similar to New York's High Line

But Friends of the Rail Park have also expressed interest in the unused City Branch Line which begins westward at Broad Street. The unique idea would connect residents from Callowhill and upper Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by a greenway, ending at Pennsylvania Avenue near the Pearlman Gallery.

The proposed Low Line Park isn't necessarily an underground park, rather it treats an urban space in a three dimensional manner, utilizing the same principles from the early 20th Century that developed a network of underground rail lines. Although SEPTA is intent on retaining control of the land, the width of the space and public ownership can accommodate its future place in public transportation. In fact, renewed interest in the forgotten space and the residents and tourists it will attract could provide the demand this space needs for a light rail to be developed along the Low Line.
It's innovative, namely because the trail would utilize a defect rail line that could have served the same purpose. The Reading Viaduct was abandoned when Market East Station negated the need for Reading Terminal to act as a head house. Market East Station linked Suburban Station to neighborhoods in the northeast and a transfer was no longer necessary. 

When the Pennsylvania Convention Center was constructed and the Vine Street Expressway completed, the Reading Viaduct was demolished south of 11th and Vine. Although the Reading Viaduct is truncated at a stone stump along Vine Street, the proximity to hotels, Market East, and Chinatown provides the potential to carry droves of tourists along its line, provided the City Branch Line were to be opened to recreationalists. 

But is it too experimental? The Low Line, which would occupy the City Branch line would be unchartered territory. New York proposed a similar venture, also called the Low Line, retrofitting a defunct trolley tunnel in the Lower East Side as an underground park. Even with the success of New York's High Line, its own Low Line has yet to gain traction or the same level of excitement. 

The proposed Reading Viaduct Park would provide public greenspace in an industrial neighborhood devoid of parks. Connecting various apartment buildings above the street it would also introduce foot traffic at Broad and Noble, a block currently experience a rebirth in residential presence with Tower Place and the proposed Inquirer Building apartment conversion. 
Philadelphia's Low Line would be vastly different than New York's, with much of the tunnel already exposed to the sky and portions along Pennsylvania Avenue likely to be opened. Our Low Line would feel less like a dead mall and more like a long sunken garden.

Unfortunately for fans of the Low Line, SEPTA has yet to give any indication that it wants to relinquish the property. Despite the fact that SEPTA has no active plans to reopen the City Branch Line, Transit Agency Planner, Jennifer Barr points out a legitimate concern: the City Branch Line is an enormous asset to the city's transit network, even if it's unused. 

Right of way through dense urban cores is something newer cities like Seattle and Portland only dream of, which is why much of the rail oriented public transportation in newer cities exists as light rails and trollies that share the road. Unloading any piece of a network of underground rail lines is something the city will never get back and will no longer have if and when SEPTA wants to expand. 

Expansion may seem unheard of, but with new residents driving the demand for development between Logan Square and Girard Avenue, there may come a day when connecting the Broad Street Line to the Art Museum north will actually make sense. 

Until then, the City Branch Line will likely remain as it is, sparsely exposed to the city above and an attraction for urban explorers. But the absence of a Low Line isn't bad news for its overall objective of connecting Callowhill to the Art Museum. 

Parking lots are being replaced by apartment buildings throughout Logan Square, including the Latter Day Saint's proposed high-rise at 16th and Vine. Neighborhoods both east and west of Broad are shoring up the kind of density befitting a true extension of Center City. That in itself will play a pivotal role in encouraging people to walk the streets north of Center City that they would otherwise ignore or breeze through in a car.

David Blumenfeld, Eric Blumenfeld's brother, of Cross Properties has proposed a new mixed use apartment project for the abandoned site of PRA's Residences behind the Rodin Museum. The rendering released by architects Barton Partners is a simple massing study and doesn't look that exceptional. But Blumenfeld is awaiting input from Logan Square residents before releasing anything solid.

While preliminary, Blumenfeld noted that a greenspace perpendicular to the street will offer restaurants a view of the Rodin Museum through a publicly accessible park. Parking will be provided underground eliminating the need for a parking podium and SEPTA's right of way will be preserved. 

However none of this necessarily negates the potential for the Low Line, it just alters the logistics of an already lofty proposal. If the Low Line Park were graded upward at 20th Street it could open into a garden behind the Rodin Museum and return underground at Pennsylvania Avenue. 

It's no crazier than the notion of an underground park.

1 comment:

  1. Still very much loving the idea of using this land as a public park... especially if the Victorian details are lovingly preserved.