Ever since New York City’s High Line opened in 2009, cities around the world have been finding ways to revitalize the skeletons of their industrial past and turn them into green spaces. Philadelphia is moving forward with a project of its own, the Rail Park.
One of the major challenges, accord to Friends of the Rail Park, an all volunteer run group trying to raise awareness for the project, has been how to get the community more involved.
“We need to engage communities across the city in a meaningful way and find out from the people what it would need to look like and what we would need to do to find out how to make it their city park,” said Michael Garden, the vice president of the Friends of the Rail Park.
The first phase of the Rail Park is tucked away in the Callowhill neighborhood and includes the viaduct section of the old Reading Railroad, which was opened in 1893–about the same time as Reading Terminal. The viaduct line and train station were used for a century before closing in 1994. Efforts to turn this space into a park have been ongoing since the mid-1990s, but only recently have actual construction began in 2016. Phase one is expected to open this year.
The park has already done more than promise to create a new green space. Property sales nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015 in the Callowhill neighborhood, especially around the area under construction now, according to a study conducted by Fixlist.
If all goes well with this first phase, the quarter mile, $10.3 million project will be expanded. The vacant land that the Reading Railroad and SEPTA own that connect to the viaduct stretches for over two and a half more miles, all the way to Fairmount. The three-mile stretch of salvageable land is double the length of the Highline in New York and is projected to cost a total of about $120 million.
Longer term, the Friends of the Rail Park look to develop the areas that the rail lines connect to called “the cut” and “the tunnel.” The cut goes from Broad Street to 21st street and the tunnel goes from 22nd to 27th streets.
“We think of the rail park in terms of three sections: the viaduct, which is the elevated section, the cut which is below street level but open to the sky and this beautiful tunnel,” said Garden.
The revenue for the Highline is expected to bring back $920 million to the city of New York during the course of 20 years. Garden believes Philadelphia could see a similar return on investment over time.
“I think you need to scale that back when talking about Philadelphia, but I think there’s an upside for the city, I think there’s an upside for the state and there will be a lot of job creation opportunities to come with this,” Garden said.
Phase one of the Rail Park is expected to cost around $60,000 annually to upkeep, which the Friends of the Rail Park has volunteered to lead. Formerly an all-volunteer organization, the Friends of the Rail Viaduct Park has begun to hire a full-time staff as the project has progressed.
The park is anticipated to change the way that Philadelphians engage with each other, bringing a new level of diversity that parks have not had before.
-Text, images and video by Jonathan Gilbert