It's an ambitious vision, but it is not pie in the sky. Look no further than the High Line park on the west side of New York to see what is possible. There, an old rail trestle has been turned into a richly landscaped walking path, with elegantly designed touches. It has become a hot attraction, drawing rave reviews, delighting throngs of visitors, and stimulating a renaissance in a once-neglected neighborhood.
A Reading Viaduct park doesn't have to be as elaborate or expensive as the High Line, a Rolls Royce edition made possible by oodles of donations from wealthy New Yorkers. Philadelphia's version will likely have to be simpler and cheaper, but it can still be spectacular.
Converting it to a park would actually be less expensive than tearing it down and hauling everything away, according to studies commissioned by the Center City business improvement district. Properly disposing of millions of pounds of steel, masonry, and soil that endured a century's worth of industrial insults will drive the cost up to around $50 million. A modest park scenario would cost only about $35 million. That's still a lot, but it's the kind of project that can be done in phases, as funding allows.
Reading Railroad, now based in California, still owns the viaduct. Initially indifferent, the company is showing more interest in the possibility of a park.
A separate spur that comes to ground level near Broad Street is owned by SEPTA. Working with a local owner to make that short spur into a park could be a relatively cheap way to get started and show the park's immense potential. In this austere budget climate, any work would likely require a mix of foundation money and contributions from various state and city agencies whose missions include park development.
Some in the neighborhood around the viaduct are more interested in expanding affordable housing than a park. They worry that a park would set off a wave of gentrification that could drive out lower-income residents.
That's a legitimate concern, but the area does have multiple vacant lots that could host creatively planned affordable-housing developments. City planners should be working toward that end, especially with any city-owned parcels in the area. With good planning of spinoff development, a viaduct park could be the seed that allows the entire area to blossom into one of the city's most appealing neighborhoods.
For a video tour of the old Reading Viaduct, visit philly.com/viaduct.