Community celebrates rail-to-trail transformation on Manayunk’s iconic bridge

It’s been quite a while since the Manayunk Bridge saw as much foot traffic as it saw Thursday.

But that kind of bustle may become common some day soon.

On a gray, blustery fall morning, about 100 residents and officials of Lower Merion Township and Manayunk joined Mayor Michael Nutter for a half-hour ceremony to celebrate the progress made so far in the long-closed span’s transformation. The goal is to turn the old rail bridge into a long-awaited connection between Lower Merion’s Cynwyd Heritage Trail and Philadelphia’s Ivy Ridge Trail.

Part-way through the ceremony, as Kay Sykora, director of The Schuykill Project, was pleased to note, the sun burst through the clouds. It seemed  a positive sign for a project that has been years in the works.

Gertrude Solkov, former president of the Manayunk Business Association, said the project was “like a dream” for the association in the ’80s and ’90s.   As Fourth District’s councilman for many years, Nutter worked on the effort, lending some added meaning to his presence at Thursday’s event.

“This project is something that everybody wanted,” said Christopher Leswing, Lower Merion’s Assistant Director of the Building and Planning Department. “But nobody knew how to go about it.” The project has been broken into many parts and, by Sykora’s count, includes the participation of up to 13 different entities throughout the area, including The Schuykill Project, the City of Philadelphia, Lower Merion and Manayunk associations, and SEPTA, which owns the iconic bridge itself.

A spot for art and performance

Leswing points to the “social design” of the project as well as its physical design, calling basic plans for the bridge’s opening to pedestrians and bikers – a long-awaited artery between Manayunk and Lower Merion – a “shell of infrastructure” which will be filled in by the art and culture of the people around it.

With plans underway for the inclusion of original community artwork as well as places for visitors to linger, connect, and take in the view, Leswing also envisions the bridge as a future festival and performance space which can turn revenues back to its ongoing projects and maintenance.

The surrounding roads are some of the most heavily traveled in the region, and when the bridge’s new amenities become visible to traffic-bound motorists, he hopes visitors will increase even more.

Solkov sees economic potential. With the new, easy access to Main Street for Lower Merion residents, she anticipates an appreciable rise in business for Manayunk restaurants and shops. Leswing, having arrived on foot for the ceremony from Lower Merion, also looked forward to this improved accessibility for residents on his side of the bridge.

Strolling for a latte

He pointed to a Starbucks storefront, just visible along the picturesque view of Main Street. Formerly, Lower Merion residents just a few minutes away who wanted to visit it, or its neighboring shops, would have had to contend with getting in the car and finding parking in Manayunk.

“But now it’ll just be a nice six-minute stroll,” he said.

Lower Merion Ward 10 Commissioner V. Scott Zelov guessed that the project will be completed in about 18 months. The $1.3 million project is funded by a PennDOT Community Transportation Initiative grant. 

“It’s spectacular for all of us,” said Lower Merion 12th Ward Commissioner Brian Gordon. After the investment of so much money into the beautiful old bridge’s stability 12 years ago, it’s about to become “an incredibly important recreational space” with a “gorgeous view” for both communities.

As the ceremony finished, the portable podium disappeared and the crowd split, attendees from both sides of the bridge crunching across the gravel to their respective gates, looking forward to a new era of safe, easy and sociable crossings on the formerly little-used space.

“We’re ready for it to be done,” says Gordon.

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