First, a bit of a primer since we often mention the Reading Viaduct without explanation. The Viaduct is the name for a stretch of elevated train tracks that's no longer used. It's overgrown and off-limits (though not every urban explorer believes that) and currently serves no purpose. There's an ongoing movement in Philly to reinvent the Viaduct as green space, as other cities have done. It's a good time for it: There are efforts in both D.C. and New York to reclaim abandoned rail stations and underground terminals that show real promise. And the Rail to Trail Conservancy, whose mission is to transform former rail lines into green space, has long championed successful efforts.
In March, Brian Flanagan, the city's Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, spoke at a panel on the future of North Broad. Flanagan has been working with the Planning Commission and the Department of Commerce to find intersections between the development of North Broad and that of the Reading Viaduct. Not long after that panel, we featured some before-and-after renderings commissioned by the Center City District to demonstrate what an elevated park on the City Branch of the Viaduct might look like.
Much of the credit for awareness of the Reading Viaduct's potential goes to the organization VIADUCTgreene, whose Leah Murphy—Senior Associate Urban Designer and Planner at Interface Studio—keeps us up to date on all things Viaduct. When Bart Blatstein announced his grand plans for a casino in the former Inquirer/Daily News building on North Broad, Viaduct dreamers couldn't help but consider how his plans would impact the viability of their project. "His decisions," says Murphy, "could make or break the continuity of a linear park along the City Branch west of Broad—connecting the SEPTA-owned stretch to the first phase of the 9th Street branch on the SEPTA spur east of Broad." And while Blatstein's casino plans are likely to take a long time to resolve (see: Foxwoods), Murphy notes that time is of the essence. "Timely consideration of the intersection of Broad with the City Branch is needed because PennDOT is currently evaluating alternatives for replacing the Broad Street bridge over the City Branch," she says. "Their low-cost scenario is actually to fill in the void under the bridge—essentially making it a road—which would, of course, remove any possibility of a gardenpark connection under Broad."
The organization is in communication with PennDOT’s engineering consultants, and they’re meeting with Blatstein tomorrow, which is crucial considering that he's acquired "such a large and critical chunk of the City Branch," as Murphy puts it. Let's hope her team can explain to Blatstein the need for public space.
· Subterranean Dreams: Exploring a New Frontier in Rail-Trails [Rails to Trails Conservancy]