Why some Chinatown residents oppose a new Franklin Square station

People enjoy Franklin Square Park on a gray January day. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

People enjoy Franklin Square Park on a gray January day. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wei Chen, a Chinatown youth organizer, often takes high school students to Franklin Square for team-building exercises.

The 28-year-old says the spot near the corner of 7th and Race, which seems to invite congregation with tables and benches, is where students engage in activities like trust falls and storytelling.

“It’s something that connects [them] to each other,” Chen said. “Helping them to identify with each other.” But Chen may have to find another spot to teach communication and collaboration lessons.

The site is home to PATCO’s Franklin Square Station, which has been dormant for more than 40 years and is now scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2023 with a new headhouse measuring roughly 3,000 square feet. Delaware River Port Authority, which oversees PATCO, plans to begin construction in Spring 2021.

Chinatown residents that use the park say they were not informed by DRPA of the coming change. Many in the area, which is just a few blocks west of Franklin Square, were immediately concerned. An online petition soon followed.

At a public meeting Monday about the project, hosted by DRPA, Chen said authority officials could use some lessons in communication themselves.

“I think this is very, very disrespect[ful],” he said. “Before you make a decision, you ignore community members voice in this event. You ignore the user [of] this green space. And you make decisions, and you’re going to go ahead.”

PATCO says the project will take up only 1% of the block-sized park, but Chinatown community members claim the southwest area is heavily used. The authority’s 1% calculation is a gross underestimation in their view.

“When we’re losing one of our most well-used … green spaces at Franklin Square, I think residents rightfully ask what are we gaining from this,” said Anna Perng, a Chinatown resident and community organizer.

A group of preschool children play in Franklin Square, near the site slated for PATCO’s new headhouse. (Courtesy of Anna Perng)

During the meeting, one person in attendance floated the idea of DRPA donating land they own nearby to the city as compensation for the loss in the park. In response, one DRPA official said no one present could make that commitment, but they’d accept it as “part of the recommendations that we’ll take up” from the community.

In recent years, community groups have tried to address Chinatown’s dearth of green space through efforts like pop-ups and a new community center developed as part of a new residential tower called The Crane.

Some of the efforts have won support from the city and other public agencies. But there are no plans currently to replace the lost green space at Franklin Square, according to Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

“Parks and Recreation will continue working alongside DRPA and the community to ensure the project has minimal impact on residents’ ability to enjoy the park,” Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks and Rec Department added in an email.

Ott Lovell said the station reopening could help bring more activity to the park, a net positive in her mind.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity for new visitors and tourists to come and visit the park,” said Ott Lovell. “And we’re excited about the economic development opportunities that this could mean in terms of bringing more business and individuals to that section of the city.”

If everything goes as planned for PATCO, this will be one of several reopenings since the station was built in 1936. It was part of the Bridge Line operation between 8th and Market and Broadway in Camden. It closed after World War II. Despite reopening a few times, low ridership made it hard to keep open in decades that followed. It shuttered one last time in 1979.

A lot has changed in Philadelphia since then, however. The city’s population increased, and development is booming in many parts of the city, including the neighborhoods surrounding Franklin Square.

Callowhill is rapidly transforming into a village of luxury condos, with hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate investment at work on blocks once dominated by industry. Piedrock Capital Partners opened a massive housing development at 4th and Race in Old City, and other developments are changing the fabric of the once-quiet area.

The Equal Justice Center at 8th and Race streets is slated to open in 2022, and the Philadelphia Police headquarters at the Roundhouse is expected to go up for sale soon.

Plus, the city is in the design phase of reconfiguring Race Street between 5th and 8th streets to increase safety. The plan includes narrowing the roadway, flexible delineator posts at some intersections, and parking-protected bike lanes.

The authority says they’re banking on new development in the area to be a boon for station patronage, while the station itself boosts further growth.

“There is a lot of development already going on right there, right now,” said John Hanson, CEO of DRPA and the president of PATCO. “And the opening of this station will be a catalyst to development in that area.”

While the success of the completed project remains in question, the construction is almost certain to cause disruption to the area. In addition to a new headhouse, the authority plans to replace and relocate an old water main that runs north-south underneath the site to underneath 7th street. John Chin, executive director of Philadelphia Chinatown Community Development Corporation, says this leg of construction will impede traffic and cause congestion.

He worries more drivers will detour through Chinatown, an area already heavily impacted by vehicle pollutants from the Vine Expressway, researchers say.

“At the end of the day, this opening of PATCO is going to have negative health benefits to people that live in Chinatown,” said Chin. “I’m sure PATCO doesn’t want that. … They need to figure out what they’re going to do to mitigate that.”

PATCO general manager John Rink said he and his team will take the community’s concerns back to the drawing board. He added that comments about the community’s use of the park left an impression on him.

“We really did get a lot of valuable input and discussion from those who use the park and can be impacted by us building the station,” he said. “We’ll take everyone’s comment and question the same.”

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