For most, dealing with the Reading Railroad places them — via their tiny-metal thimble, iron, Scottie dog or other game token of choice — between Income Tax and Oriental Avenue, costing between $25 and $200 of pastel-colored Monopoly money per visit.
Sixteen students from Temple’s landscape architecture studio of Spring 2012 took on the abandoned three-mile Reading Railroad Viaduct as a comprehensive urban design project, sans trips to the Boardwalk or collaborations with Rich “Uncle” Pennybags.
Instead, a partnership with Temple and the University of Pennsylvania’s senior architecture studio formed to take inventory, analyze and design the railroad lines—55-blocks of unused, untapped space that runs above and below ground level from Vine Street to 13th and Noble streets to the west, and to the 800 block of Fairmount to the east.
The findings and designs from the semester-long project are on display through Nov. 30 in an exhibit called “above | below | beyond” at Next American City’s Storefront for Urban Innovation at 2816 W. Girard Ave. The exhibit held its opening Friday, Oct. 12, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. as part of DesignPhiladelphia, a festival created to showcase innovative design and build community relationships.
“You can just feel the history at the site,” said landscape architecture alumna Amy Syverson, who was a co-sponsor of the exhibit. “You can feel all the different layers of what happened there including when it was built as the excitement of the industrial age and all that momentum of development was happening, and then you can also see the layer of how the world started to change and transition into the way things are now.”
Temple’s class, under the direction of professor Lolly Tai and late adjunct professor Stuart Appel, broke students into groups to complete detailed inventory work that cataloged exactly what was on the site. Groups of four to five students then worked on master planning and analysis work. During the close of the semester, students worked individually to develop in-depth designs for one portion of the railroad.
“It was our purpose to take student work and show people that after our presentations it’s not just shoved in a box somewhere,” said landscape architecture alumna Diana Fernandez, another co-sponsor of the exhibit. “It’s real, it’s feasible and it’s tools that people can use everyday.”
A 385-page volume was produced of their work, which illustrated designs that turned the area currently overgrown with rich vegetation, into a linear green space, a transit track, a concert venue, bike paths and a sculptural park, among other diverse concepts.
“There’s no set idea for what we want this site to become,” Fernandez said. “The exhibit is opening the conversation for anyone to come in and have all this information, take all of our anaylsis, all these ideas we came up with and use them to create their own and develop the site the right way through community involvement.”
Penn’s senior architecture studio, under the direction of professors Julie Beckman and Ariel Genadt, had students focus on the elevated portion of the railroad in the Chinatown and Callowhill neighborhoods.
University of Pennsylvania architecture alumna Susan Kolber spearheaded the exhibition from start to finish, along with Syverson and Fernandez.
“above | below | beyond” features the Storefront window filled with more than 25 mason jar terrariums and tea lights suspended from wooden railroad-esque planks, which all hang over a circular platform covered in a map of the Reading Viaduct. Photography, illustrations, models and information regarding the history of the railroad fill the location of a Next American City, a nonprofit based in developing American cities to bring information to those working to improve them.
“It’s an exhibit unlike any other because it’s so interactive, it’s so engaging and it’s something that is accessible to anyone,” Fernandez said. “You don’t have to be a designer to understand what we’re showing you. It’s so expressive of what the site is like.”
At the back of the store, a table is setup displaying limited-edition idea trading cards for $2, which feature designs from both Temple and Penn students. Blank cards are available for exhibit attendees to donate their input and ideas about what the areas could become, in hopes of continuing a conversation on the ongoing development.
Center City District took interest in developing the Viaduct after seeing the success of its New York counterpart, the High Line — a former elevated freight-rail line turned public park in Manhattan’s West Side. Its first completed section opened in 2006, and its second in 2011.
“[The High Line] just proves that raised infrastructure would make for such an incredible opportunity for a park because you experience the city completely differently,” Syverson said. “You’re at a different level of buildings, you see these views that are unobstructed, you’re over top of traffic. When you go down into the submerged portions, it’s a completely different world where you don’t hear anything except birds or people talking.”
“It doesn’t feel like you’re in a city at all,” Syverson added. “It’s incredible.”
An environmental and feasibility analysis was commissioned in 2010 of the entire viaduct from the Center City District in collaboration with Reading Viaduct Project, the City’s Department of Commerce and the Department of Parks & Recreation. Renovating the viaduct was found to be less expensive than demolishing it, which was estimated at $50 million, according to the study.
Studio | Bryan Hanes and Urban Engineers produced renderings after being commissioned in 2011 by the city of a public park that would be renovated in an area of the Viaduct owned by SEPTA. Entrances to the park would exist on North Broad Street at Noble Street, at 13th and Noble streets and on Callowhill between 11th and 12th streets. By the end of the year, preparation of construction and bid documents are anticipated to move the project forward, according to the Center City District.
Syverson said that the three recognize that other groups like VIADUCTgreene, which also hosted a DesignPhiladelphia event, could potentially have its ideas developed soon. But with their student work, Syverson said it hopes to get people involved at a personal level.
“[VIADUCTgreene] doesn’t have enough time and energy to catalog the plethora of ideas that are out there, so if you just see one final design you almost miss how amazing it is that there is so much volume of excitement behind this, so we want to get that exuberant underground response out there,” Syverson said. “They need to be in a realistic mindset, but we can think big because we’re students. We just want to get people talking, even if it’s about whacky stuff.”
Syverson and Fernandez, both employed at Appel’s firm, Wells Appel, as landscape architects, plan to continue aiding the effort of development after “above | beyond | below” is done by fueling the project’s blog with new ideas and updates on events regarding the railroad.
“I want people to walk away being able to envision for themselves, being able to envision what it might look like for that space to not be an abandoned industrial relic that’s crumbling, but to be something that’s really positive for the city,” Syverson said. “I want people to see themselves using that space and see what the potential could really be.”
Cara Stefchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CaraStefchak.