Plans for the abandoned Reading Rail Viaduct aim to transform it into a park above the streets.
Inspired by the highlines of New York and Paris, Philadelphia could be getting its very own citywide park.
Split into two branches, an elevated Ninth Street Branch and a City Branch drops below street level, covering a total of three miles.
The Ninth Street Branch, which is usually referred to as the Reading Viaduct, is the section of the park that will be “in the sky,” beginning on Vine Street and heading north to Fairmount Avenue.
In 2003 the Reading Viaduct Project, an organization comprised of community members, came together to advocate for the creation of an elevated park. That same year the city of Philadelphia recieved a grant to fund a study on whether it was more effective to demolish the viaduct or redevelop it. According to the Reading Viaduct’s website, revitalizing the viaduct would cost $5 million, as opposed to the approximately $35 million it would cost to demolish it.
The City Branch, the lesser known of the two branches, curves west from the Ninth Street Branch and drops below Broad Street. The branch will go underneath the Philadelphia Inquirer building and continue to Girard Avenue by Fairmount Park.
VIADUCTgreene, a non-profit organization founded one year ago, held two free informational events this past weekend as part of DesignPhiladelphia where the public could learn more about the efforts to make this project a reality.
The first event held on Oct. 13 at FACTS Charter School was an opportunity for the founders of VIADUCTgreene and Reading Viaduct to give a visual presentation on the history, benefits and importance of the project. Attendees also had the opportunity to ask organizers questions about the logistics of the project.
The second event on Oct. 15 was a walking tour of the City Branch at street level. During the tour, spectators were given the history of the area surrounding the branch and ideas of how the park would add to the culture of the area.
Liz Maillie and Paul van Meter, the founders of VIADUCTgreene, helped lead the events with the founders of Reading Viaduct.
“I make gardens for a living so the idea of having a project built that’s impressive and public is great when you’re used to working in private gardens,” van Meter who was originally inspired by the developers of the New York Highline, said.
“We’re looking at this as gardeners and gardening is about maintaining a sense of stasis in a very dynamic system that’s always changing. We look at the city as this very dynamic thing, but we want to maintain the city because all these varying neighborhoods is what makes the linearity of this park so exciting,” van Meter added.
“A park is not successful unless it’s serving the people that live adjacent to it,” Maillie said.
To ensure the park has community involvement, Maillie said the group has been meeting with community groups to find out their needs.
“We’re doing a lot of community analysis, connection analysis of the project in order to try and get a very clear idea of what occurs in the city, around the viaduct itself, to explore connective possibilities which it already inherently has, but design can create [possibilities] as well,” Shawn Ryan, a fifth year senior architecture major, said. Ryan is doing his thesis on the viaduct project.
Ryan said he’d be working with VIADUCTgreene throughout the semester and hopes to continue his work with the project after graduation as well.
Structurally the viaduct is more conducive to construction, already having bigger, wider spaces. It leaves room for vendors to possibly invest in the park for potential customers. The wider space also has the potential for pedestrian and bike lanes in the park.
Other factors that might make development easier are the City Branch already having been derailed and the areas already having plant life growing with ease, especially on the City Branch.
“I was surprised by how overgrown and wild it is but beyond that there’s also a lot of beauty to it,” said Shelley Hull, an engineer who went on the street level tour of the city branch. “With the old walls and the ivy and trees above, I could definitely see potential for a park there in some of the more open spaces.”
Moving forward with the project, the biggest concern appear to be time and funding.
“We all have full time jobs aside from doing this,” Maillie said “We’re working on growing our organization.”
The organization was founded a year ago and received nonprofit status in March.
“Since then we have not felt comfortable going after funding because we felt we needed to know we could be effective before we actually sought funding to help us grow as an organization,” Maillie said.
Maillie said funding is also what separates the New York highline from Philadelphia’s effort.
“New York is fantastic, exciting and inspirational but certainly not a model for Philadelphia… as a $250 million project it’s no model for Philadelphia,” Maillie said. “That’s also been part of our motivation. How can we create a model that other cities can use? How do we find out how to frame this and build this in an affordable and sustainable way other cities can actually model this after?”
“I think everybody thinks about these kind of elevated parks projects and they think the [New York] highline,” Maillie said.
What Maillie and van Meter seemed most excited about was the future “Ideas Competition.”
“I became intimately involved with the highline because I entered an ideas competition,” van Meter said. “The ideas competition was open to anyone and we really want to do that here, but we want to promote it even more.”
“We’re looking to launch an international ideas competition because we truly believe this is a national sight that deserves input from all different disciplines, nationalities, groups that might be interested or have an idea to build this park,” said Maillie, who hopes to launch the completion in the fall of 2012.
The city is including the project in the planning commission’s 2035 plan.
Luis Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org