Changing Skyline: A park on high

Sarah McEneaney and John Struble , cofounders of the Reading Viaduct Project, talk about its potential as a SEPTA train rumbles by. They've won support from the Loft District's property owners to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District.
Sarah McEneaney and John Struble , cofounders of the Reading Viaduct Project, talk about its potential as a SEPTA train rumbles by. They've won support from the Loft District's property owners to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

The extension of New York's vibrant High Line sparks excitement for our own Reading Viaduct - what could be "a linear version of Rittenhouse Square."

Posted: June 17, 2011

NEW YORK - It's easy to find the new entrance to the High Line park. Just follow the stream of people in skinny jeans and espadrilles heading west from the subways around Penn Station. The parade becomes a throng as you near 10th Avenue, once a lonely outpost where the blocks were lined with trucks and streetwalkers and not much else.

The Pied Piper of Parks opened its second section only last week, extending its reach to 30th Street, but the surrounding streets have already assumed the vibe of a real neighborhood. So many people have been trekking to the far west side that there have been lines to enter the park, built on an old rail trestle.

Designed by Philadelphia's James Corner and New York's Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the two-year-old High Line may turn out to be the most influential work of architecture completed during the boom years, the Guggenheim Bilbao of its decade. Every city wants one.

That includes Philadelphia. And now the city is taking the first steps toward creating its own version on the viaduct that carried the Reading Railroad's trains into Center City. Not only did the Nutter administration endorse the park project in the Philadelphia2035 master plan that was released last week, it has sent two high-ranking emissaries to Los Angeles to negotiate the viaduct's purchase from the remnants of the Reading company, now primarily a real estate holding company.

A small group of activists living in the Loft District, the cluster of old factories north of Vine and east of Broad Street, has been pushing for a linear version of Rittenhouse Square for nearly a decade, and they're finally seeing their efforts pay off. Sarah McEneaney, a painter, and John Struble, a woodworker, moved to the neighborhood decades ago and fell in love with the wild landscape that took over the industrial relic after trains stopped rolling into Reading Terminal in the mid-'80s. Now they practically have part-time jobs giving tours to city officials, representatives from philanthropic foundations, and landscape architects.

The Center City section of the viaduct was demolished in the late '80s to make room for the Vine Street Expressway and the Convention Center. The trains that used the viaduct went underground, into a new commuter rail tunnel that linked Reading's old routes and the Pennsylvania Railroad's into a unified system we today call SEPTA. But after that final section was taken down, the rest of the massive stone viaduct proved too much of a bother to remove.

Blackened by a century of coal dust, its mighty stone arches give the Loft District the feel of a fortified medieval village. Walking on the surface is like stumbling upon a lost civilization in the jungle - albeit one with 360-degree views of Philadelphia's skyline. As at the High Line, stately factories crowd against its old rails, further cloistering the space from the world. Fading painted advertisements on the sides of buildings emerge as telegrams from the past: "The bicycle with the national reputation." "Artists Colors." "100% Occupied."

A decade ago, McEneaney and Struble were told the Reading Viaduct, which runs three-quarters of a mile from Vine to Fairmount Avenue, was too far from downtown to support a public park. But the transformation of Manhattan's similarly isolated west side by the High Line made people like Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, reconsider.

The viaduct now bumps up against the edge of Center City's ever-expanding northern boundary. "It's adjacent to strong housing demand all around it," yet the Loft District remains relatively blighted and undeveloped, said Levy. "If you could improve the viaduct, you could improve the neighborhood."

That's what happened along the High Line. For all New York's insatiable housing demand, Manhattan's far west side remained desolate: It was a place where the city seemed to fall off the edge of the Earth. But as champions of the freight trestle's restoration gained support, developers sniffed opportunity and moved in. Before New York could rethink the zoning for land alongside the trestle, buildings like the Standard Hotel, which now straddles the High Line, were already trading on its future attraction.

McEneaney and Struble hope to lay down the rules before the frenzy starts. They've won support from the Loft District's property owners to establish a Neighborhood Improvement District. In April, Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced legislation that would allow that district to levy a tax and raise money for improvements to the viaduct. The organization, similar to the Center City District, is expected to be up and running by late fall.

Meanwhile, Levy has been helping their Reading Viaduct Project find its way. His group recently commissioned a planning study to evaluate the structure, which includes a quarter-mile spur that curves along Noble Street to 13th Street.

Among the study's surprising findings: It would cost $50 million to demolish the stone fortress, but $36 million to retrofit it as a park. The analysis also concluded that the appreciation rate on existing real estate would be twice as high from a renovation as from demolition.

No wonder the Nutter administration enthusiastically supports the viaduct park.

No deal with the Reading company is imminent, however. "Reading has owned the viaduct for 100 years and they are in no big hurry to part with it," Levy explained. "They see what's happened in New York."

But the city isn't without leverage. Reading owes $1.4 million in back taxes on the structure, according to Levy, and it has been asked to clean up surface contamination, like PCBs. Besides, other than the city, who would want a toxic old railroad viaduct?

Even in this depressed market, developers Mike and Matt Pestronk were drawn to the Loft District because of the viaduct. They are busy converting the former Goldtex building on 12th Street to 162 rental apartments. To promote the development, they plan to project video images of the viaduct on the building's south side, starting this weekend.

Still, there are naysayers who wonder why anyone would go near such a white elephant. Last month, Witold Rybczynski, who teaches at Penn's School of Design (as does High Line designer James Corner), published an op-ed in the New York Times pooh-poohing the High Line bandwagon.

"Advocates would like to see the High Line model take off nationwide in the same way Central Park was copied in the 19th century," he wrote. "It probably won't be worth the effort."

His argument is that the High Line can work only in neighborhoods with high densities, like Manhattan's Chelsea. The problem with his logic is that the area alongside the High Line didn't take off until it was clear the park would be built.

Rybczynski contends that elevated parks have more trouble enticing visitors than grade-level parks, but the challenges aren't all that different. All public green spaces need a constituency that will use and support them, otherwise their emptiness becomes forbidding.

But not all urban parks need to have that constituency on their immediate edges to flourish. Some, like the new Race Street Pier - also designed by Corner - draw from the wider city. If such parks are managed wisely, they can help create a sense of place in areas without a resident population. The viaduct, like the High Line, has ample transit access, from the Broad Street Subway and its Ridge Avenue spur.

Rybczynski also bases his arguments on that park's enormous cost, $152 million for one mile. Most of the money, however, went into repairing the High Line's steel trestle, and remediating the surface. The Reading Viaduct's massive stone piers could easily last another century, and the amount of contamination there appears to be minimal, Levy said.

The second phase of the High Line is more modest than the first, in part because the trestle narrows as it heads north to Penn Station. It's there, in the simple walking path lined with native plants, that Philadelphia can find a real lesson for its viaduct dreams. Sometimes when you build it, people really do come.


Changing Skyline:

For a video tour of the Reading Viaduct, go to philly.com/viaduct.


To learn more about the High Line, go to www.thehighline.org. For the Reading Viaduct project, visit www.readingviaduct.org/index.html.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com or @ingasaffron.

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