Viaduct revival

The Reading Viaduct is the abandoned railroad viaduct formerly operated by the Philadelphia and Reading Railway. Organizers want to turn all or part of it into an elevated park. (David Maialetti/Staff)
The Reading Viaduct is the abandoned railroad viaduct formerly operated by the Philadelphia and Reading Railway. Organizers want to turn all or part of it into an elevated park. (David Maialetti/Staff)
Posted: August 29, 2011

HIGH ABOVE the shadowy streets of Callowhill and Chinatown North, a lush green wilderness of weeds, thick grasses and purple flowering bushes thrives amid the rusted railroad tracks of the old Reading Viaduct.

From atop the viaduct, the city's modern skyline of towering glass and steel shimmers to the south, but one can also get a close-up glimpse into the city's industrial past: the area's brick former factory buildings that once made textiles or bicycles or held printing presses.

"We have all these beautiful urban views, and yet you feel like you're in a country meadow," said Hamilton Street resident Sarah McEneaney, 55, who has been lobbying, along with John Struble, for nearly a decade to transform the viaduct into an elevated public park with spectacular, panoramic skyline views.

"It immediately transports you from a bustling urban environment to one much more quiet with a lot of birds and a lot of plants."

Now, after eight years of prodding, McEneaney, a painter, and Struble, a furniture maker, have succeeded in getting city officials and other prominent Philadelphians on board with the viaduct park idea.

The city is in talks with Reading International Co. to take control of the larger section of the viaduct, said Alan Greenberger, the city's deputy mayor for economic development.

Meanwhile, the Center City District is working with SEPTA on a legal agreement to create a park on the shorter section of the viaduct owned by the transit agency.

"You can see it from down below here and you can walk around and it's really scary," Struble, 66, said of the view of the viaduct from street level. "It's not attractive till you get on top, then you go, 'Oh!'

"It's an amazing area, just a linear park just waiting to happen."

Amazing gathering spot

Walking with a group on the viaduct recently, Kelly Ganczarz seemed awestruck.

"This is amazing," said Ganczarz, 23, who works for an urban-planning design firm. "I love it."

Ganczarz moved into the Callowhill area - the area bounded by 8th, 13th, Vine and Spring Garden streets and called the Loft District by real-estate firms - only a few weeks ago, but she's already involved in helping the park effort. She is on the steering committee for creating a new neighborhood-improvement district.

Compared with the High Line in New York, a reclaimed rail trestle on Manhattan's west side that has been drawing huge crowds since it opened in 2009, Ganczarz said that Philadelphia's viaduct is much wider, allowing for a greater variety of uses.

"I see it as a gathering place," Ganczarz said. "A great place to ride your bike, go running or have a picnic.

"I see it being redeveloped for people in the city to enjoy and become a destination. It will be a community asset for people in the neighborhood and for other people . . . to plan their day to go there and spend the day."

On the recent tour, McEneaney walked up to the now-closed 9th Street railway station, where she once boarded trains bound for Reading Terminal, and said that she could see a café operating there.

The closed station sits across the viaduct from a building already full of artists' studios, at 915 Spring Garden St..

She pictures outdoor concerts and art festivals.

"I think it would be great if there could be walking trails and some benches, but keep some of the native and local grasses, like they did with the High Line," said Candace Vivian, a Northern Liberties photographer who was also on the tour. "Maybe they could work with Bartram's Garden or the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, but don't have it too manicured. Keep the integrity of it.

"It's been a wild place for a long time, it would be nice to keep that same idea."

Already there is much buzz about the Callowhill and Chinatown North area, where several buildings have been converted into artists' studios and loft apartments.

Chinatown North is bound by 8th, 12th, Vine and Spring Garden - roughly the same territory as the Callowhill area.

A restaurant and bar, the Arts Bar, is being planned on Callowhill near 12th Street, next door to Underground Arts, a theater and performance arts space in the Wolf Building. Meanwhile, a music venue is set to open in the old Spaghetti Warehouse, on Spring Garden Street.

And late next year, the old Goldtex factory, at 12th and Wood, is expected to open with 161 apartments, said Matt Pestronk, co-owner with his brother Michael of Post Brothers Apartments.

JOINING THE MOVEMENT

If Philadelphia follows through with the promise to create a viaduct park, it will join what has become known as a "rails to trails movement."

Several cities, including Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis, are now working on plans to follow the lead of New York's High Line.

Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, said that he "had a religious-conversion experience" when he visited the High Line in 2009.

The High Line not only provides a quiet, green place for people to stroll or sit on wooden lounges, but it sparked a growth in economic development as new businesses rushed to locate in office towers near the park, he said.

Levy said that a park on the Reading Viaduct would not only eliminate the blight in the area, but also stimulate growth for the Chinatown area and attract new residents.

He said that it would become "a great amenity for the neighborhood" just as Clark Park is in West Philadelphia and Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square are to sections of Center City.

"It would create a totally unique neighborhood that wouldn't be like Northern Liberties, it wouldn't be like Germantown," Levy said. "We would have these industrial loft buildings next to this curving, elevated park with skyline views."

Greenberger has high hopes that Philadelphia will be able to launch its own railway park that is unlike New York's or any other city now working on plans to build an elevated railway park.

"It has all this potential to be this stretch of green space that has the potential to be really lovely," he said.

Whatever happens, Greenberger gives credit to urban pioneers like Struble and McEneaney for kick-starting the project.

Said Greenberger: "A lot of credit goes to them for pointing it out and keeping that flame alive."

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