New project would create an eight mile trail from Northwest Philadelphia into the suburbs

Susan Dannenberg, now at the helm of a volunteer group developing an eight-mile walking and bike trail connecting Cheltenham and the Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill areas to Fairmount Park, is aware of both the benefits and challenges of such an ambitious project.

We’re used to driving everywhere, and sitting in front of the TV in air-conditioned houses. But as Dannenberg says, a trail brings us face-to-face with neighbors: “When you put a trail in, people get out to walk their dogs or take their grandson for a little bike ride – all the neighbors are out there and it can really bring a community together.”

The Cresheim Trail Project, now in the process of incorporating as a 501(c)3 non-profit, hopes to provide a “key link” between existing Wissahickon Valley trails and the neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Wyndmoor, Laverock, Cedarbrook, Erdenheim and Flourtown

While the exact alignment has not been finalized, Dannenberg hopes that the southern part of the trail will begin at Lincoln Drive and Allens Lane. Heading north, it will cross Germantown and Stenton Avenues (crossing into Montgomery County) out into Cheltenham as far as Route 309, and then head northwest to connect to the Green Ribbon Trail in Flourtown.

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The original impetus for the trail got underway in 2005, with a Chestnut Hill Rotary Club initiative to fix up the Cresheim Valley/Germantown Avenue gateway, eying a public art project for the old railroad trestle nearby. They came up with a grant application, landed funding from the Mural Arts Program and held an artist competition. But because the bridge is owned by PECO, in order for the beautification project to move forward, the city would have had to lease the bridge from PECO and assume liability for it.

Instead, a larger inspiration took hold: Farrah Jimenez of Mt. Airy USA suggested they look at the larger corridor as a potential rail trail.

A grant from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and local donors supported a $40,000 feasibility study in 2007.

Dannenberg was drawn to the project in 2011 through her expertise in city planning and “passion” for bicycle advocacy. After receiving her masters in City Planning, Dannenberg wanted to focus on the region’s transit issues, and after a stint as SEPTA’s Customer Advocacy Officer, Dannenberg returned to her passion of bicycle advocacy, promoting the Cresheim Trail and collaborating with Philadelphia’s Bicycle Coalition for the promotion of bike-friendly transit options.

Dannenberg hopes that her current work on the Cresheim Trail Project, whose many stakeholders now include the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Rotary Club, the Friends of the Wissahickon and the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, will help to satisfy the gaps in Philadelphia’s bicycle and pedestrian routes.

“I decided to take on the Cresheim Trail in 2011, because at that point the feasibility study was four years old, and there really hadn’t been a lot of movement,” she says. “I wanted to see if we could put some energy into that and get the project moving.” In addition to generating more awareness and community support for the effort, the Project is currently hoping to hire a part-time Executive Director to aid grant applications.

For Dannenberg, a viable pedestrian and bicycle pathway between Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy is another important goal of the project. Several roads do connect the areas, but between unpredictable sidewalks, bridges and hills with speedy traffic, they’re unfriendly to those who aren’t getting around in cars.

Challenges include ongoing funding for trail upkeep – even if grants support its creation, the local municipalities do not want to be responsible for its maintenance in an economic climate leery of additional spending and will look to the Friends of the Cresheim Trail to take on that responsibility.. Other issues include right-of-way, liability and privacy concerns.

“What I see happening is the politicians will say, yes, we support the trail in theory, but they want to be sure that there is broad based support among their constituents,” she says. One concern that must be addressed from the outset is the privacy for homeowners whose property lines the proposed trail. The Project is prepared to address this through fencing, hedging or other means.

Meanwhile, Dannenberg emphasizes benefits of the trail, beyond improved transportation and exercise options and community connections. These include an economic boost to establishments along the trail – such as the Trolley Car Diner – who hope to enjoy a jump in business with an influx of trail users.

Having already hosted a work day in March with thirty-five volunteers, the Friends of the Cresheim Trail is gearing up for a second community work day, with the help of the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club, the Friends of the Wissahickon and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, on Saturday, April 28th. Work will run from 10am to noon and participants will meet at the intersection of Lincoln Drive and Allen’s Lane. Coffee, lunch, gloves and tools will be provided, though participants are welcome to bring their own (Dannenberg encourages a liberal application of poison ivy pre-exposure lotion). Kids and teens are welcome, as long as they arrive with a supervising adult.

Anyone who wants more info on the trail is encouraged to contact the Friends of the Cresheim Trail. The Friends offer neighbors a “house party”, in which a representative provides an in-home presentation regarding the history and future of the Cresheim Trail for friends and neighbors. The Project’s working group also welcomes community participants at its monthly meetings. The next one will take place on Tuesday, April 24th at 6pm. For details and location information, contact Susan Dannenberg at 215-715-9159 and you can keep up with the latest at the Project’s Facebook page.

Editor’s note: This article was revised to update the name of the organization and include additional sponsors participating in the upcoming work day. 

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