Parks & Recreation Department holds preview tour of “Bartram’s Mile”

This past weekend bicycle and walking tour participants held back fences, skirted around concrete barriers and accessed places along the Schuylkill River that, previously, only the brave might have attempted to sneak onto.

To gain public input and foster public engagement around one of its current projects, Parks & Recreation and PennPraxis led bicycle and walking tours of the future Bartram’s Mile – the envisioned 1.1 mile, 8-acre recreation trail and green space that will run along the western bank of the lower Schuylkill River.

In 2010, Bartram’s Mile was highlighted in Green2015 as an opportunity to convert publicly owned vacant land into green space. Now Parks & Recreation, along with the Schuylkill River Development Corporation and the John Bartram Association, is leading the project to convert this former industrial landscape into a bicycle and recreation trail that will extend the Schuylkill River Trail from Grays Ferry Crescent to Bartram’s Garden and connect with “The Circuit,” the region’s network of bicycle and pedestrian trails, via the 58th Street Greenway.

Bartram’s Mile North

The vision for Bartram’s Mile starts just south of the Grays Ferry Bridge, where the Schuylkill River Trail will cross from the eastern edge of the river to the western bank. Today this area is an overgrown, abandoned mix of nature reclaiming space and piles of trash and tires that have been dumped in the woods. 

The envisioned trail runs through this illegal dumping area to 49th Street and Botanic Ave where it meets vacant and underutilized industrial lots, buildings and parking lots. In this northern section of Bartram’s Mile, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) owns the former National Heat and Power site and the Philadelphia Streets Department and CSX own the other land parcels.

“We’re lucky to have this mix of public and kind of quasi-public ownership,” said Andrew Goodman, PennPraxis planner and project manager who led this weekend’s tours. 

There is talk that the Streets Department may leave its site within the next year, and because the city already owns that property, it may be turned over to Parks & Recreation for use in conjunction with Bartram’s Mile. 

One bicycle tour participant asked if one of the main Streets Department buildings on the site might be turned into a facility with bathrooms and showers for people using Bartram’s Mile. Goodman and Christopher Dougherty, who helped lead the tour on behalf of Parks & Recreation, suggested the city is thinking of ways the building could be repurposed, perhaps as some sort of Bartram’s Mile hub. 

“I’ve heard a lot of things in all my years here, but when I saw you all coming through, I thought maybe this’ll be the end of us,” said John Moffo, the Streets Department facilities manager who oversees the buildings near 49th Street and Botanic Ave and who led the bicycle tour behind the property. 

Connecting to Bartram’s Mile

Just north of Botanic Ave, 49th Street leads into Bartram’s Mile, but the street is currently blocked by fences around the CSX railroad tracks. Goodman said 49th Street could be an access point to the trail, but it is unclear if or when the CSX fences might come down.

One benefit to 49th Street access is that the Route 36 trolley stops nearby at 49th Street and Grays Avenue. 

“If this plan is going to make sense, you absolutely have to have access to the transit line,” said Bob Thomas, a founder of Campbell Thomas Architects and a longtime trail advocate.

Another critical link into the northern section of Bartram’s Mile will be the bridge carrying the trail from Grays Ferry Crescent on the eastern edge of the river to the western bank. There is a bike trail on the current Grays Ferry Bridge, but those leading the Bartram’s Mile project are looking into ways that the abandoned PW&B Railroad Bridge might be used as a bicycle and pedestrian bridge.

The PW&B Bridge was built as a railroad bridge in 1902 but abandoned in the mid-1970s. Today the swing bridge is adjacent to the Grays Ferry Bridge and remains open to let boats pass freely on either side. Because the bridge is close to the water, if it were used as a trail bridge, it would have to be raised, potentially as high as 50 feet, in order to allow tug boats that operate on the river to pass beneath it. 

Sarah Clark Stuart, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia campaign coordinator and bike tour participant, said she hopes Parks & Recreation and Schuylkill River Development Corporation can find a way to utilize the bridge as a part of Bartram’s Mile but not raise it so far off of the water. 

Bartram’s Mile South

After Bartram’s Mile connects with Bartram’s Garden, the trail will continue again where 56th Street meets the river. The path will hug the river from 56th Street to 58th Street, where it will connect with the 58th Street Greenway, an important link in “The Circuit.”

Today the space from 56th to 58th streets is a flat, gray, concrete no-man’s land on one side and sweeping views of the open Schuylkill River and distant Center City skyline on the other. 

The industrial side of the river is owned by PIDC and is currently under environmental remediation due to a significant diesel spill that happened in the 1990s, Dougherty said. The space is enclosed by chain link fences and the trash that has been dumped along them.

On the bicycle tour, participants suggested that the area where 56th Street meets the river might be used as a boat launch for private kayaks or dragon boats and for recreational fishing. 

“I think it’s so lovely how you have sort of wild, natural sites that are embedded into this industrial or vacant scenery,” Stuart said. “It’s a wonderful contrast but it’s also very serene and quiet and natural.”

Stuart said she thinks if elements of the wild, natural ecosystems that have reclaimed the former industrial area are kept, Bartram’s Mile has potential to be a very different, less manicured portion of the Schuylkill River Trail. 

Where Bartram’s Mile ends at 58th Street, it meets the 58th Street Greenway. Future users will be able to take the 58th Street Greenway, now set to be complete in the spring of 2013, to the Cobbs Creek Trail and its Circuit connections beyond Philadelphia. In the opposite direction, cyclists will be able to travel from outlying suburbs to the Cobbs Creek Trail, 58th Street Greenway, Bartram’s Mile and through to Center City. 

Thomas said at first the community surrounding 58th Street was wary of the project but that public outreach and community engagement helped to change that. 

“The community has gotten involved in a beautiful way, and that’s a major part of making this work for everyone,” Thomas said. 

For the Bartram’s Mile project, Parks & Recreation and PennPraxis will continue working with the public through December. Project leaders hope to see the mile completed by 2015 to meet the Green2015 goal.

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