Will Philadelphia turn the Reading Viaduct into a park like N.Y.’s High Line?

The Reading Viaduct, a hulking century-old masonry and steel railroad trestle, runs for ten blocks north of Center City. Abandoned since 1984, the viaduct has long been overrun by weeds, trash, and graffiti. But now there is growing interest in redeveloping the railway into an elevated park—just like the High Line in New York. 

New York City’s High Line is an unlikely public park built from the remains of an industrial railway. So far two million people have visited and the park has generated $2 billion in private investment. The High Line’s success has prompted Philadelphia to explore its own rails-to-park proposal.  Sarah McEneaney, co-founder of the Reading Viaduct Project, says it could connect several neighborhoods.

“Just to the South we have Chinatown proper and then it comes up north of Vine Street into Callowhill and/or Chinatown North and then as it goes slightly northeast, crossing Spring Garden Street, it reaches almost to Northern Liberties,” said McEneaney. “The SEPTA spur that we’re on now actually hits ground level very close to Broad Street, or Avenue of the Arts, and the Spring Garden neighborhood. So I see it as a real valuable link to really bring communities together.”

McEneaney believes that redeveloping the Viaduct would be far less expensive than the $50 million it would cost to demolish it.   And she says it would rejuvenate surrounding neighborhoods. But some say Philadelphia isn’t prepared to build and maintain the park while waiting for private investment to gain traction. Others worry about the potential effect on real estate prices north of Vine Street where one-bedroom condo conversions in the “Loft District” have already topped $200,000.  That’s out of reach for many in neighboring Chinatown, where nearly two in five live in poverty.

John Chin, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, says a park would be nice, but demolishing the viaduct would put the land in the city’s hands and clear the way for building quality housing with without the high pricetag.

“Philadelphia has a very high home ownership percentage rate,” said Chin. “I think it’s about 40-50 percent. In Chinatown that homeownership rate is about 19-20 percent. So we’re way below the average. The biggest thing I’ve learned in my time here is that there is a tremendous need for housing in the community.”

Over the last decade, Chinatown’s population has more than doubled and municipal redevelopment projects such as the Vine Street Expressway, the Gallery, and the Convention Center, have gobbled up about a quarter of its land area, says Chin. Though many agree with Chin that Chinatown needs more affordable housing, not everyone considers the proposed park a luxury.

“The absence of green space is a really striking for this neighborhood. You know the one thing I’d like to challenge is this notion that a green parkway would be really attractive to loft kind of affluent people whereas for poor people, Chinatown residents, it’s all about housing,” said Ellen Somekawa, Executive Director of Asian Americans United. “This is a neighborhood that includes many kinds of people. What they have in common is a desire for a kind of livability.”

Somekawa’s group founded the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, which directly abuts the viaduct.  They would like to use some of it it as an outdoor play space. Maitrivia Lim and her classmates at the school documented the viaduct’s impact on their community.

“It is kind of scary sometimes and it’s really dark and everything too, so if we can put it to good use, maybe we can put some lights, or like layer stuff down, or something, it’s going to be great,” said Lim.

As students work on longer-term goals for greening the viaduct, they have already succeeded in getting the vacant lot behind the school cleaned, the fence along the perimeter repaired, and permission to plant a small community garden. Meanwhile, McEneaney and other park advocates have taken steps to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District with eyes toward reclaiming the viaduct as a community park. They think the improvement district could be the key to finding the millions of dollars it would take to redevelop the rusting hulk.  In New York they raised tens of millions of dollars in private money to build the Highline.

Whatever the future ultimately holds for the viaduct, the first step is for Philadelphia to acquire it from current owner, California-based Reading International, an entertainment and real estate company. Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, confirms the city is talking with Reading about the viaduct and Reading’s adjacent properties. Greenberger calls the viaduct an “agent of blight” and is optimistic the railway will someday complete its long journey from eyesore to asset.

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